Preventive Defense

Saturday, October 30, 1999

The end of the Cold War has brought about an enormous paradox. On the one hand, the familiar threat of imminent global nuclear war ended when the Soviet Union ended. But the result was not a world guaranteed free of risk for U.S. security. New and unfamiliar dangers have taken the place of the familiar military threat. A new strategy is needed to identify these new dangers and apply U.S. influence to avert them. We call this strategy “preventive defense.” Like preventive medicine, preventive defense seeks to forestall dangerous developments before they require drastic remedies. Preventive defense is about both grave dangers to U.S. security and great opportunities to safeguard it.


Through more than four decades of the Cold War, American national security strategy, although difficult to implement, was easy to understand. America was set on a clear course to contain Soviet expansionism anywhere in the world, all the while building a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union from using military force against the United States or its allies. Then the underlying rationale for that strategy—the threat from the Soviet Union—disappeared.

With the Cold War over, it is necessary to rethink the risks to U.S. security. Conceptually, they can be arrayed in a hierarchy from most dangerous to least dangerous. At the top of the hierarchy would be an “A list” of threats to U.S. survival of the kind and scale that the Soviet Union presented during the Cold War. But this list is empty today: There are no imminent military threats to the very survival of the United States. The two “major regional contingencies” in the Persian Gulf and on the Korean peninsula that undergird Pentagon planning and budgeting form a “B list” of imminent threats to U.S. interests but not to the survival or way of life of Americans. The third place in this hierarchy is occupied by the Kosovos, Bosnias, Somalias, Rwandas, and Haitis that compose a “C list” of important contingencies that indirectly affect U.S. security but do not directly threaten U.S. interests.

The emptiness of the A list is disorienting for Americans, who made the huge transition from defeating aggression to deterring aggression after World War II but who now, in consequence, tend to conceive national security strategy exclusively in terms of threats to be deterred or defeated. Thus the focus tends to be on B-list and C-list threats. We believe, however, that long-range strategic thinking about how to prevent the rise of new A-list threats is sorely needed.

Political and economic transformations now under way in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are unprecedented in their scale and scope. This vast redistribution of political and economic power extends throughout Eurasia and includes the gradual emergence of China as a true world power. Meanwhile, the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that made deterrence both dangerous and necessary have not been fully dismantled, let alone disinvented, and they now threaten to fall into the hands of unstable nations, groups, and terrorists. Thus while threats of the traditional sort might be hard to find, danger to the security of Americans is not.

The United States is enjoying a period of peace and influence like it has never had before. But although this should be savored, we cannot afford to become complacent. The United States must prepare in earnest for future threats.

In the years since the Cold War ended, however, the evening news has given the impression that the primary security challenges of the new era are those that arise in remote places such as Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, and Somalia. For many, these conflicts seem to define the national security dangers of the post–Cold War world. But in fact, these are third-order or C-list threats; they are places and problems that do not threaten America’s survival as World War II and the Cold War did. This is not to say that they are unimportant; we must meet challenges such as Bosnia, not only for humanitarian reasons but to stop the killing and atrocities before they undermine the foundations of regional and international stability. However, a price is paid for such actions: resources are diverted to military operations, and they demand the time and attention of our national leaders. Because such C-list issues do not threaten America’s vital security interests, dealing with them individually or as classes—peacekeeping, peacemaking, humanitarian operations, operations other than war, and the like—cannot make up the core national security strategy of the United States.

Nor can U.S. strategy be wholly determined by what we call B-list threats: those that may threaten vital U.S. interests but not America’s survival. These are the major regional contingencies—specifically, the threat of Iraqi aggression in the Persian Gulf and the threat of a North Korean invasion of South Korea—around which the Pentagon must organize much of its military planning and force structure. Although a look at the newspapers suggests that the United States places a high priority on peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, a look at the defense budget shows the higher priority the United States places on these regional wars. They constitute familiar Cold War–like strategic territory for Americans: clear and imminent threats, which must be deterred by ready military forces.

If deterrence fails, the U.S. military is capable of inflicting a decisive defeat on today’s two potential regional aggressors. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is militarily weaker today than it was in 1990, while U.S. forces are better positioned to repel Iraqi aggression. North Korea still has the capability to launch a horribly destructive war on the Korean peninsula, but the capability of its collapsing economy and starving population to sustain the campaign is far less than during the 1994 crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program. And, as in the gulf, the posture of the United States and the U.S.-Korean Combined Forces Command has been substantially improved.

The reason for the preoccupation of American strategy with these B-list and C-list issues in the early post–Cold War period has been the current unusual and happy circumstance in which there is no A-list threat to the United States. The Soviet Union is gone. Russia does not pose a conventional military threat to Europe and shows little inclination to pose a nuclear threat to the United States. Some Americans conjure up China as the enemy of the future, but China’s future role in the world will be influenced by contingencies over which U.S. policy can exert some positive influence.

Thus, the United States is enjoying a period of peace and influence like it has never had before. But although this should be savored by the public, foreign policy and defense leaders cannot afford to be so complacent. A period of absence of A-list threats must stretch us strategically; it calls for vision and foresight to act strategically when events and imminent threats do not compel us to do so. That should be the primary business of statecraft in the post–Cold War era.

The way to sharpen focus on the strategic requirements of our time is to ask the questions, “How might the post–Cold War era end?” “How can the United States prolong this period of peace and influence?” “How can we ensure that, if it must end, it ends gracefully, without cataclysm?” and “What is the character of the era that will follow it?” The answers to these questions define the fundamental long-term strategic challenges of the post–Cold War era.

Because the security strategy created to deal with the threats of the Cold War is not suitable for dealing with the dangers to our security in the twenty-first century, we believe that the United States should formulate a new security strategy appropriate for this new world and should create the policies and programs capable of carrying out that strategy. In essence, America has another chance to realize Secretary Marshall’s initial vision at the end of World War II: a world not of threats to be deterred, but a world “united in peace, freedom, and prosperity.” To realize this vision, America should return to a prevention strategy like that embodied so successfully in the Marshall Plan: a strategy of preventive defense.

The nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons from the Cold War have not been fully dismantled, let alone disinvented, and they now threaten to fall into the hands of unstable nations, groups, and terrorists.

Preventive defense is a defense strategy for the United States in the twenty-first century that concentrates national security strategy on the dangers that, if mismanaged, have the potential to grow into true A-list-scale threats to U.S. survival in the next century, bringing the current era to an abrupt and painful end. These dangers are not yet threats to be defeated or deterred; they are dangers that can be prevented.

Developing and implementing a strategy of preventive defense is the most important mission of today’s national security leaders and defense establishment. They must dedicate themselves to preventive defense at the same time they deter lesser but existing threats—in Iraq and North Korea—and conduct selected peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and so on, where conflict threatens long-term interests.


There are currently five dangers that we believe have the potential to become A-list threats to U.S. and international security in the twenty-first century. These are the targets of preventive defense; its goals are to keep these dangers from becoming major threats.

  1. WEIMAR RUSSIA. Harking back to the disastrous failures of the international community in dealing with Germany after World War I, we must do what we can to reduce the risk of parallel developments occurring in post-Soviet Russia. It is critical that Russia not be allowed to descend into chaos, isolation, and aggression. A primary goal of preventive defense is to help Russia establish a self-respecting place for itself in the post–Cold War world and to establish a stable security order on the territory of the former Warsaw Treaty Organization states. During our tenure at the Department of Defense, we sought to forward these ends by “defense diplomacy,” engaging Russia in mutually beneficial cooperative efforts, particularly in the NATO-led international peacekeeping force sent to Bosnia to enforce the Dayton Accords. Such defense diplomacy grows even more important as the “honeymoon” phase of the post–Cold War “partnership” with Russia ends, the Yeltsin era draws to a close, and a more difficult era begins.
  2. LOOSE NUKES. Failure to reduce and secure the deadly legacy of the Cold War—nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union—could quickly resurrect a top-priority A-list threat if these weapons were to fall into the hands of disaffected custodial personnel, rebellious factions, rogue regimes, or terrorists. Indeed, with the danger of “loose nukes,” the probability of nuclear use has actually increased, not decreased, in the post–Cold War era.

    The United States has had some success in reducing the threat of loose nukes. We have, for example, convinced all of the successor states of the former Soviet Union to eliminate their nuclear weapons stockpiles, avoiding what otherwise would have been the biggest burst of proliferation in the history of the atomic age. But our success so far is only small comfort in view of the sheer size and longevity of Russia’s Cold War stockpile: plutonium, for example, has a half-life of twenty-four thousand years. As Russia enters the second post–Cold War era, arms control has been at an impasse and threat reduction programs need reinvention and reinvigoration.

  3. TENSION WITH A RISING CHINA. The United States must act to help shape the course of China’s rise to Asian superpower status so that it emerges in future decades as a partner rather than an adversary. Failure here would lead to the Pacific’s greatest danger.

    “Containing” China is not a viable option. Such a strategy could produce precisely the adversarial kind of China we would like to avoid, and both the American public and America’s allies in the region are unlikely to support the kind of expense and effort that would be required to pursue such a risky and difficult strategy. Instead, the United States should grasp this moment of improving relations with China and use its strong position of power and influence to build a solid foundation for U.S.-China relations and to shape that relationship to both countries’ present and future mutual benefit.

  4. PROLIFERATION OF WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION. The spread of weapons of mass destruction has always been regarded as a cardinal danger to international peace and security, but the nature of proliferation is now sharpening from diplomatic problem to direct military threat to the United States and its interests. Potential opponents in regional conflicts are amassing weapons of mass destruction in an attempt to sidestep U.S. conventional military forces, which they cannot hope to defeat in head-to-head “symmetric” warfare. The U.S. military therefore needs to develop counters to “asymmetrical” threats like weapons of mass destruction.
  5. CATASTROPHIC TERRORISM. The widening availability of destructive technology and the growing complexity and consequent vulnerability of twenty-first century societies suggest that terrorism might make a quantum leap in the decades ahead, from airline hijacking, ordinary explosives, and hostage taking to attack with nuclear, chemical, biological, and cyberweapons of enormous destructiveness. Terrorism with such weapons could cross borders as easily as people, goods, and capital do, bringing the threat directly to the U.S. homeland for the first time. To many, the end of the Cold War implied that threats to U.S. personnel and interests would be remote, taking place in Europe, the Persian Gulf, or the Korean peninsula. However, this threat has the potential to change Americans’ perception of their security within their own homeland and thus to change our society itself; we therefore term this specter “catastrophic terrorism.” It is a military-scale threat divorced from the traditional context of foreign military conflict, and it is entirely new in American experience. Catastrophic terrorism challenges the U.S. government to invent a new security structure from the bottom up.


We have argued that the end of the Cold War has induced a false sense of comfort that the dangers to American security are confined to the B-list and C-list threats that have dominated the headlines in the last decade of the twentieth century. There is growing evidence that the absence of an imminent A-list threat might also lull the United States into sloppy and wasteful mismanagement of its defense establishment. We call the danger of such mismanagement “the threat within.” To counter this threat, the United States must have a strong military to cope with continuing B-list and C-list contingencies, and a strong military will be even more essential if preventive defense strategies are not able to keep future threats from emerging.


As a guide to national security strategy, preventive defense is fundamentally different from deterrence. It is a broad politico-military strategy, and therefore it draws on all the instruments of foreign policy: political, economic, and military. But the role of the U.S. Department of Defense is central: the department’s contacts with its counterpart militaries in Russia, China, and Europe will influence their views of themselves and thus their propensity to threaten U.S. interests. The defense department’s resources and technology are critical to countering loose nukes, proliferation, and terrorism. And the DOD has an enormous stake in the success of preventive defense, since the price of failure is nothing less than the emergence of new A-list military threats against which it would have to respond.

During our time at the Pentagon, we established a number of programs and initiatives that made a strong start at incorporating the strategy of preventive defense into the activities of the defense department. After we left the Pentagon in 1996, the department reinforced its commitment to these programs by adding “shaping the international environment” to the DOD missions identified in the Quadrennial Defense Review, a full-scale review of department programs completed in 1997. The second mission identified by the quadrennial review is “responding”—to aggression in Korea and the Persian Gulf and to peacekeeping and humanitarian emergencies such as Bosnia and Rwanda, our B-list and C-list threats. The third mission identified is “preparing” to use new technology to defeat major new threats if they emerge in the future. In our view, most of the department’s efforts go to “responding”; a still insufficient but growing effort goes to “preparing”; and as yet far too little effort goes to “shaping,” that is, to preventive defense.


Today we are at a unique point in the history of American security. The United States faces no direct threats to its national survival, and it is the dominant military force in the world. To some, these conditions are contradictory. They argue that because we have no threat to our survival, America does not need to maintain its military dominance. Others argue, at least implicitly, that because of America’s military dominance, our nation does not need to take measures to keep threats from reemerging. But we believe that a primary goal of our nation’s security strategy should be to ensure that both of these conditions are perpetuated.

Preventive defense programs, sustained and expanded, hold great promise for preventing conflict and should be a key component of American security strategy. But preventive defense is a strategy for influencing the rest of the world, not compelling it: preventive defense will not always work, and the United States will have to deal with a continuing parade of challenges that, while they threaten neither a global war nor our national survival, do threaten the survival of an ally, economic strangulation, or the use of weapons of mass destruction. We have no reason to expect these regional threats to disappear; rather, they are likely to get more severe. So, in addition to preventive defense, American defense strategy must maintain the military forces that are able to deter regional aggressors and that, if deterrence fails, can win quickly, decisively, and with minimal casualties.

Much work lies ahead to sustain the existing preventive defense programs and to build on them. We urgently need to establish new policies and programs to take maximum advantage of the current unprecedented opportunity to base American and international security in the twenty-first century on our ability to keep trouble from starting