Are we seeing a resurgence of the Cold War in international relations? The resurgence of perils on the European continent, a hotbed of past tensions, from Berlin, to Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, might suggest this. A trend towards the reconstitution of blocs, whether in the NATO area or in the Indo-Pacific region, would also have similarities with an international system that had been thought to be over.
There are, however, notable differences. The Cold War brought two superpowers face to face, while the game became more complex with the emergence of new poles of power and increased risks of proliferation. The possession by the two Great Powers of nuclear weapons excluded their direct confrontation. This is still the case but erosion has nevertheless occurred. In the South China Sea, the possibility of direct conflict between major players is not completely ruled out by the protagonists themselves. The pattern is different in the Ukrainian crisis since the United States, while strengthening the NATO area, have excluded a military response and remain in this respect in the logic of the flexible response.
In the two situations mentioned above, neither the possession of nuclear weapons nor the presence of armed elements of the superpowers seem to be fully sanctuarizing threatened territories or limit confrontations to peripheral conflicts through partners or substitutes. The result is greater instability, which is also a new characteristic of the present period.
Infra-deterrence would therefore correspond to an overall situation where military nuclear power no longer guarantees peace but where, on the contrary, its detention would give additional credibility to a power to conduct large operations with conventional means or simply to threaten to use them. We can only hope that this last reflexion will not be founded. But the erosion of deterrence, paradoxically at a time when the dangers of proliferation are real, seems a trend that must be examined.
It is therefore appropriate to dive back into the fundamentals of a system that has proved its worth and this is the subject of General Maigret’s book prefaced by Hubert Védrine – which stresses the need for a «permanent conceptual work on deterrence in the 21st century» – with particular reference, for educational purposes, to the air component of the French deterrent force.