The three tools of security strategy most heavily relied upon for the past 70 years -- deterrence, prevention, and preemption -- have never worked very well. Today they are on life support, sustained because of their appeal to civilian policymakers' and military strategists' habits of mind and institutional interests. There is no more pressing need today than to rethink these concepts, perhaps even to jettison long-accepted practices associated with them.
The Latin root of "deterrence" is the word for "to terrorize," and that was certainly how the first nuclear weapons were used: to kill hundreds of thousands of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and intimidate Japanese leaders into surrendering. The stated goal: preventing an even more costly, large-scale conventional invasion from becoming necessary. Whatever the true impact of these nuclear attacks, the idea of preventive action -- striking before threats could arise or dire consequences could unfold -- became attractive. Soon there were plans for mounting atomic attacks on the Soviet Union -- communist China. too, after Mao came to power.
But once the Russians obtained their own nuclear weapons, American ardor for preventive war cooled. As President Dwight Eisenhower put the matter in 1954, the Soviets could be "destroyed but not disarmed," and he gave up on preventive war in favor of a policy of deterrence. Still, it was deterrence based on the notion of engaging in "massive retaliation" -- that is, it had a large preventive flavor based on the belief that the threat to nuke enemy lands into radioactive dust for even minor acts of aggression would keep the peace. It didn't. Massive retaliation did little to stem the rising tide of insurgencies that have dominated the landscape of war over the past half-century. As Thomas Schelling summed this strategy up in his Arms and Influence, massive retaliation was "a doctrine in decline from its enunciation."
With the rise of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the rapid growth of arsenals of nuclear warheads, it soon became clear that the only real value in possessing these weapons lay in deterring their use. Quite the paradox, acquiring a capability so as never to use it. Still, given the "law of the instrument" (when one has a hammer, more and more things start looking like nails), strategists and policymakers expended huge effort trying to figure out how to wage nuclear war. A key element here was getting the drop on the enemy with preemptive strikes -- hitting first in anticipation of an imminent attack. The high point of this sort of thinking came in Jimmy Carter's Presidential Directive 59. But given the vast size of American and Russian arsenals, this was all nonsense. However successful a preemptive first strike might be, there would always remain enough -- on both sides -- to rubble-ize the enemy's country.