People keep throwing this justification out like it means something. Permit me to disabuse you of this misperception; (Mutually) Assured Destruction is not a viable or stable strategy even with two players; with three or more competing interests, it is entirely untenable by itself in preventing escallation. It makes several basic assumptions that just aren’t valid, including that all parties will act in a rational manner to protect their populations, that perfect information is known about an opponent’s strategy and intention, and that permissable action and communcation/command/control systems operate without error.
In fact, all of these assumptions have been invalidated at some point during the Cold War, leading the US and USSR almost to nuclear exchange. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and EXCOMM totally misunderstood Soviet intentions and instead of offering the peaceable exchange of removing Jupiter IRBMs from Turkey and Greece in exchange for the Soviets dismantling their bases in Cuba (which is all the Soviets really wanted, and by the time it would have been in effect the United States had planned to stand down the Jupiter anyway as the Atlas ICBM became operational) they played hardball in public, resulting in EXCOMM literally discussing not if but when and how they should strike Cuba and how much reprecussion could they expect from the Soviet Union. Castro, for his part, demanded that Khruschchev respond to any attempt by the United States to invade Cuba by using nuclear weapons with full knowledge that Cuba would be utterly annihilated. (Although well documented elsewhere, Robert McNamara describes this in the Errol Morris documentary The Fog Of War; Morris interprets this as the lesson “Rationality will not save us,” and McNamara screatches about how Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro were all “rational individuals,” but in truth if they’d all been rational it never would have gotten to this point; each was so tied up in his own agenda that they didn’t perceive the situation of the others.)
And on no less than half a dozen occasions the United States and the Soviet Union were literally within minutes of a nuclear exchange, and in at least one case it was the actions of a single mid-level individual, disobeying direct orders and the requirements of his command, which prevented the Soviet Union from launching an all-out strike in response to what they believed to be an ICBM heading from the United States toward the USSR. (See Lt. Col Stanislaw Petrov.) NORAD has had a couple of similar incidents stemming from improper use of a training tape (which showed a full-out attack in operational, rather than simulation, mode) and a faulty computer register which miscounted incoming missiles. Hell, even post-Cold War there have been some scares; in 1995 the Soviet Union went on highest alert as a Norwegian sounding rocket was mistaken for a submarine launched ballistic missile.
It’s worth noting that while Assured Destruction–a doctrine the Soviets never used in their own planning–was an invention of McNamara and systems theorists at thinktanks like the RAND Corporation that extended Eisenhower’s strategy of “massive retaliation” into a Total War perspective. Famous theorists like Herman Kahn pointed out significant flaws in Assured Destruction; specifically, that it required repeat strike capability and decentralized control so that a disabling strike to the National Command Authority (read: the President and his immediate successors) would not cripple the United States retaliatory capability. This, however, makes control and security even more difficult, famously parodied in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. While it (probably) would never have been that easy for a single commander in either the US or the USSR to unilaterally launch a strike with something like the movie’s “Plan R”, the opportunity clearly existed for a mistake or deliberate sabotage to cause a launch order to be issued under mistaken or false impulses. And while General Turgidson argued that, “Well, I, uh, don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up,” in fact a single “slip-up” is all that would be required to utterly destroy a vast majority of the Industrialized world, East and West, particularly once both nations fielded hundreds of MIRV-capable ICBMs and SLBMs ready for launch at literally a moments notice.
And these were two nations who had much to lose, a high investment in the concept of deterrence, and puppet states by which to compete with one another and let off steam without direct confrontation. In a world where you have a spectrum of nuclear-armed regional powers without those constraints and outlets, depending on the other guy’s sense of self-preservation is like believing the guy playing three card monty on an overturned cardboard box is being honest.
As for the US and Russia, it’s really something of a puzzle to me why they’re returning to saber-rattling and vying for the concurrence of Balkan nations. In the case of Putin, it’s largely, I think, a matter of appealing to national pride and the former glory days of the Soviet Union, if not looking forward to Moscow being the “Third Rome” of Western civilization, and developing a fascist-like cult of personality around himelf. For Bush the Younger, I’d have to guess that he’s trying to evoke the same sentiment that worked so very well for Reagan (which is ironic considering how Bush the Elder contrasted in many ways with Reagan’s notions of foreign and fiscal policy). He needs an enemy to shake his spindly fist at, and invoking “the terrorists” and “al-Quida” is getting old and tired. And nobody is really putting forward the dough to fund a proper Cold War, which means that China, India, and even perhaps nations like Iran and Japan may have a more significant active influence in what goes one…which means more hands at the table and less certainty of who is bluffing about what.
Assured Destruction is not going to protect you; it really didn’t before–one thing I agree with McNamara about is that nuclear war was prevented by luck–and it’s not going to work now. While I agree with Uncommon Sense that we should work to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources for both strategic and political reasons, there’s no way we can just sit back and observe; by it’s history and stature (and financial ties to every industrialized nation, including China, Japan, Korea, India, the EU, et cetera) the United States is an inherent member in the process, whether we like it or not.