The Best Defense Is a Capitalist One
Political scientist John Mueller is not convinced that nuclear weapons are the driving force behind the lack of major wars in recent decades. His article "The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons" in International Security (Fall 1988) offers a informative contrary view to the often-bland assertion that nuclear weapons — and not the highly destructive nature of conventional wars — are what keep world powers away from new wars.
In the case of the deterrence offered by the United States, Mueller is especially unconvinced, especially since the potential military power of the US government if far greater than anything any other single state can muster.
It's not just fear of American nuclear weapons that's a deterrent, Mueller notes. It's American economic power that really matters. In discussion of post World War II deterrence against the Soviets, Mueller examines how American economic power inspired fear:
[E]ven if one accepts these assumptions [i.e., the assumption that American nuclear power restrained the Soviets in Western Europe], the Soviet Union would in all probability still have been deterred from attacking Western Europe by the enormous potential of the American war machine. Even if the USSR had the ability to blitz Western Europe, it could not have stopped the United States from repeating what it did after 1941: mobilizing with deliberate speed, putting its economy onto a wartime footing, and wearing the enemy down in a protracted conventional major war of attrition massively supplied from its unapproachable rear base.
The economic achievement of the United States during the war was astounding. While holding off one major enemy, it concentrated with its allies on defeating another, then turned back to the first. Meanwhile, it supplied everybody. With 8 million of its ablest men out of the labor market, it increased industrial production 15 percent per year and agricultural production 30 percent overall. Before the end of 1943 it was producing so much that some munitions plants were closed down, and even so it ended the war with a substantial surplus of wheat and over $90 billion in surplus war goods. (National governmental expenditures in the first peacetime year, 1946, were only about $60 billion.) As Denis Brogan observed at the time, "to the Americans war is a business, not an art."
If anyone was in a position to appreciate this, it was the Soviets. By various circuitous routes the United States supplied the Soviet Union with, among other things, 409,526 trucks; 12,161 combat vehicles (more than the Germans had in 1939); 32,200 motorcycles; 1,966 locomotives; 16,000,000 pairs of boots (in two sizes); and over one-half pound of food for every Soviet soldier for every day of the war (much of it Spam). It is the kind of feat that concentrates the mind, and it is extremely difficult to imagine the Soviets willingly taking on this somewhat lethargic, but ultimately hugely effective juggernaut. That Stalin was fully aware of the American achievement-and deeply impressed by it-is clear. Adam Ulam has observed that Stalin had "great respect for the United States' vast economic and hence military potential, quite apart from the bomb," and that his "whole career as dictator had been a testimony to his belief that production figures were a direct indicator of a given country's power." As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it in 1949, "if there is any single factor today which would deter a nation seeking world domination, it would be the great industrial capacity of this country rather than its armed strength."Or, as Hugh Thomas has concluded, "if the atomic bomb had not existed, Stalin would still have feared the success of the U.S. wartime e~onomy."
After a successful attack on Western Europe the Soviets would have been in a position similar to that of Japan after Pearl Harbor: they might have gains aplenty, but they would have no way to stop the United States (and its major unapproachable allies, Canada and Japan) from eventually gearing up for, and then launching, a war of attrition.
In his book Wartime, Paul Fussell briefly examined the industrial nature of the Second World War.
[W]hat counted was heavy power and it is the bulldozers, steam-rollers, and the earth graders of the Seabees that constitute the sppropriate emblems of the Second World War. "Perhaps there was a time," says Geoffrey Perrett, "when courage, daring, imagination, and intelligence were the hinges on which wars turned. No longer. The total wars of modern history give the decision to the side with the biggest factories." And in Europe as well as the Pacific, the industrial basis of "victory" was even more clear. As Louis Simpson puts it in his poem "A Bower of Roses," in one battle near Dusseldorf:
For every shell Krupp fired,
General Motors sent back four.
...One Canadian has remembered: "I knew we were going to win the war when I saw the big Willow Run aircraft factory outside Detroit. My god, but it was a big one."
Thus, for those states, like the United States that benefit from immense capitalist-fueled wealth, global deterrence is built in. Mueller even concludes that a standing army and a ready navy are not even especially important. It is the potential for mobilizing large amounts of warmaking machinery that poses the real deterrence to foreign threats.
Nuclear weapons however, remain relevant since they level the playing field for small states.
Not all states — or, more importantly, not even all alliances of small states — can access an enormous industrial output that the North Americans can.
As Mueller explains, those states are already deterred from making war on large wealthy states. Large wealthy states, however, are not deterred from making war on smaller, poorer states.
Thus, for small states, nuclear weapons do have importance as a defensive weapon. North Korea, for example, can't possibly hope to ever win a war of attrition with even a small industrial power. However, if it can deter attack on itself with even a small number of nuclear warheads that can be delivered to the urban centers of its enemies.
Naturally, this only works from a defensive point of view. Nuclear weapons offer no offensive advantage:
Both defensive and offensive realists agree, however, that nuclear weapons have little utility for offensive purposes, except where only one side in a conflict has them. The reason is simple: if both sides have a survivable retaliatory capability, neither gains an advantage from striking first. Moreover, both camps agree that conventional war between nuclear-armed states is possible but not likely, because of the danger of escalation to the nuclear level.
While it's true that maintaining nuclear weapons is somewhat expensive, it's quite cheap compared to maintaining a large conventional navy, air force, and industry from which to produce conventional weapons.
Ultimately, though, what really grants a state or group of states true power to deter attack and invasion is access to large amounts of capital.
Lenin wasn't imagining things when he looked around the world and saw that the capitalist powers of the world were waging multiple wars. He was wrong, of course, that capitalism causes war. But, there is no denying the wartime capability is greatly enhanced by the wealth created through the trade, productivity, and wealth generated by capitalists. Unfortunately, this defensive capability has come with vast offensive capability as well.