Five fresh questions about nuclear deterrence

I recently came across this joke about the nuclear deterrence debate: “it’s like a prehistoric bug trapped in amber: it had obviously been alive once, but it hadn’t moved in millions of years”. This characterisation was offered in 1987 (by Philip Bobbitt in Democracy and Deterrence). Nearly thirty years later, little appears to have changed. It’s hard to believe the debate ever was alive. Is there any reason to suppose it can be brought to life again?

Well, yes, there might be. At least two significant developments have taken place. The Cold War came to an end, and while Russia and America remain heavily armed (particularly the USA), there has been a slow increase of trust, and very significant reductions in the quantities and destructiveness of the weapons still held. Many people, on all sides, and at every level, have expressed the hope that the world could move to get rid of all nuclear weapons. Complete disarmament still looks a long way off, but it is no longer simply a pious fantasy. But at the same time, more countries have tried to acquire nuclear weapons, and some have done so. The spread of nuclear arms has substantially increased the risks and dangers. There could be misunderstanding between hostile nations, there could be accidents, and the chances of terrorist (non-state) groups acquiring these weapons have also increased. Then there is a third change: the passage of time. It is now nearly 70 years from the first and only use of nuclear bombs. In those 70 years there have been many wars, many occasions of international tension and dispute, and a handful of occasions (in the public domain) where nuclear threats have been made or implied. This should provoke us to ask what we can learn from the experience of the last 70 years.

In this setting, here are five fresh questions which ought to be answered.

  1. What evidence is there that nuclear weapons have kept peace in times of tension?
  2. What experience of nuclear threats is known?
  3. Is there any theoretical or experiential reason to think that threats of massive destruction are militarily or politically effective?
  4. How can the world disarm from nuclear weapons?
  5. How can proliferation be prevented and how can terrorists be prevented from threatening nuclear destruction?

These five questions, particularly the first two, are genuine questions, not rhetorical ones. I ask them here partly to provoke discussion and thought, and also to ask whether they have been already asked and answered elsewhere.

Before considering these questions, we need briefly to remind ourselves of the main arguments for and against nuclear deterrence.

Essentially, the case for nuclear deterrence has one major argument. (There are also responses to the more numerous arguments against nuclear weapons.) The single argument, which has been so compelling, is that it is not safe to be without nuclear weapons when even one other potential opponent has nuclear arms. Possession of nuclear weapons means that one is not open to nuclear threats or nuclear blackmail. Further, once two nations have nuclear weapons, it would be dangerously destabilising for one of those to disarm without the other also doing so. This argument is also made positively, rather than negatively. It is claimed that nuclear deterrence offers a very good guarantee of peace, and indeed that it has done so. There has been no war between East and West, between the Soviet Union and the USA, between Russia and Western Europe.

The arguments against maintaining nuclear bombs are more varied. The first argument remains the moral case. Nuclear weapons wreak huge destruction on civilian populations, and they also have dire poisonous effects which last for decades (at least). To use these weapons would always be wrong. Threatening to do something immoral is also immoral. If it is said that nuclear weapons would never be used (they are simply a bluff) they would lose any effectiveness as an implied threat. This argument is often supported by others. Two significant arguments include the question of risk and dangers, and the financial argument. Although the financial argument is frequently made against nuclear arms, it is not necessarily as strong as it looks. Partly because military security is an overriding concern for any state, and partly because nuclear disarmament may require greatly increased spending on other military forces. The concern about the risk of accident is a more real one, and this is greatly reinforced by any proliferation of nuclear weapons.

(This brief summary bypasses the extensive theoretical discussions of nuclear deterrence - game theory - does deterrence work? and so on. Is bluff a real and effective possibility?)

Since the ending of the cold war, the USA and Russia have significantly reduced their nuclear stockpiles. Hopes are widely expressed (e.g. by President Obama) that further progress towards a nuclear free world may be made. The old doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) has been largely left behind. Although there is little which is really clear about all this, the belief that both sides are completely and mutually deterred by the other’s destructive powers no longer holds in the same way. On one side, relations between Russia and the USA improved greatly after the days of the Soviet Union. Trust was built and arms stocks decreased. On the other side, there has been greater emphasis on the possibilities of more limited nuclear conflict (at least partly with other nuclear armed states in mind).

This brings us to the issues raised by proliferation. There are presently nine nuclear states (USA, Russia, China, UK, France, India, Pakistan and North Korea, along with Israel which has not publicly admitted possession). As Kissinger and others have argued, this greatly increases the possibilities of accident or possible misunderstanding. This is far from a theoretical notion. There are several well-documented cases where nuclear weapons were close to being used because it was thought nuclear attack was taking place. Accidents have also nearly happened (eg in transporting nuclear materials). Furthermore, the existence of so much nuclear technology makes it more likely that terrorist groups may obtain the wherewithal to construct nuclear bombs.

These developments raise significant questions about the necessity of nuclear weapons for preserving the peace. The move towards disarmament, however slow, however much a matter of words rather more than deeds, reminds us that it is possible, almost certainly very much preferable, to maintain peace in a variety of ways, military and non-military, not including nuclear deterrence. The extent of proliferation underlines the urgent need to control possession of these weapons. It also counts significantly against the widespread belief that nuclear arms are a guarantee of peace and security.

This is sufficient for us to consider our five questions.

First. What evidence is there that nuclear weapons have kept peace in times of tension?

The experience of the last 70 years ought to be examined. How far have nuclear weapons prevented war? What part have they played in keeping the peace? What are the realities of nuclear threats and nuclear blackmail? Two immediate difficulties confront anyone wanting to answer these questions - the widely held convictions we take for granted, and the difficulty in finding accurate knowledge of the behaviour and motives of world leaders in making crucial decisions.

There are at least two widely held beliefs about nuclear weapons since 1945. One is that their use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki directly ended WWII. The other is that nuclear stand-off prevented any East-West conflict in Europe from 1945 to the present day. That the atomic bomb ended the Second World War in Japan seems like a knock-down argument. The bombs were dropped on Aug 5th and Aug 8th. On the 8th, Japan surrendered, and they said it was because of the bombs they had done so. But it may not have been quite like that. The circumstances of the dropping of the bombs and the surrender do not quite fit that picture so neatly. The Japanese were inured to the destruction of their cities from the air. Greater damage had already been inflicted on Tokyo, and when the news of Hiroshima reached the Supreme Command, they did nothing. They then met on 8th, before the bomb fell on Nagasaki, and at that meeting agreed to surrender. The decisive event looks much more likely to have been the action of Russia, which moved against Japan on 7th August. Japan had been anticipating that Russia could be an intermediary in the near-future, in negotiating terms of surrender with the USA. That prospect was lost, and the much worse possibility raised of having to surrender to Russia. The bomb played a very useful role for the Japanese, as declaring that scientific development to be the cause of surrender significantly saved face for them in offering unconditional surrender to the USA.

If this reading is correct, in one sense it changes nothing, for of course nuclear weapons might still be powerful even if they weren’t actually the one crucial factor at that time. But it does drive us to look even more sceptically at claims for nuclear deterrence. What about preserving the peace in Europe since 1945? The coincidence of nuclear deterrence and peace is not proof of cause and effect. There are many other reasons why the peace held (in so far as it did). The world was very weary of wide-spread warfare. Huge standing armies were maintained on either side of the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union, which had the larger military forces, was grappling with a host of other issues, especially economic ones. Nor is it strictly true that peace was preserved and the borders frozen. Both Hungary and Czechoslovakia were victims of Russian power. Berlin was blockaded. All this means is we cannot simply assume that the peace was kept by nuclear weapons, while at the same time we cannot rule out the claim that they played their part in the deliberations of the leaders involved.

Second. What experience of nuclear threats is known?

We know of many occasions when no nuclear threats appear to have been made. Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and the blockade of Berlin, the building of the Berlin Wall are key examples in Europe. In the Far East, Korea and Vietnam; in the middle East, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the US threatened China on various occasions in the 1950s for various reasons, and to force China to negotiate over Korea in order to end that war. Britain also considered threatening China, in order to retain Hong Kong, in 1961. There is a second-hand and unsubstantiated story that Britain told France, during the Falklands war, that Argentina would be bombed if France did not release information about the Exocet weapons it had sold to Argentina. With that (rather flimsy) exception, there do not appear to be any occasions (in public knowledge) when any military or political advantage was sought (much less gained) since 1962. The Cuba crisis of 1962 is the most significant example of an occasion when nuclear threats played a leading role. The lessons of that crisis are far from obvious. The usual telling of the story is that the US used the threat of nuclear attack to prevent the USSR from bringing nuclear-armed rockets to Cuba and installing them there. But, the US was not deterred from blockading Cuba by any Soviet threat.

An example of the failure of nuclear threats seems to be clear in the war on Iraq. The US threatened the use of destructive force against Iraq in the event of the use of WMD, or setting fire to the oil wells. WMD were never used, but the oil fields were set burning regardless of any threats.

There is disappointingly little evidence of the deterrent effect of nuclear arms, because so few threats have even been considered, let alone issued. On the face of it, the paucity of nuclear threats seems to bear out the view that nuclear weapons are politically unusable, and so any threat must always be a matter of bluff. If this view is now widely understood, any threat is useless, whether made against nuclear or non-nuclear armed opponents. To this proponents of nuclear deterrence might say that mere possession of nuclear arms is itself a deterrent. However, all that nuclear arms seem to do is deter nuclear attack by an opponent. They really do not seem to have had any real effect in many (if even any) of the almost countless armed conflicts since 1945. The natural conclusion of this train of thought is that if nuclear attack cannot be threatened against a non-nuclear armed opponent, then not having nuclear arms is safer than having them.

The first two questions need the skills of historians. The third question is for political theory.

Third, is there any theoretical or experiential reason to think that threats of massive destruction are militarily or politically effective?

The declared aim of nuclear deterrence is to act on the will of an opponent by threatening massive, possibly indiscriminate, destruction. This suggests a kind of parallel with terrorism. Terrorists do not directly aim for military power and conquest, but use the threat of destruction and death to make political authorities make changes and concessions. The study of terrorism is outside our scope, but it is far from easy to see many examples of successful terrorist movements. Terror actually does not seem all that effective in obtaining political change. This contention is certainly borne out by the evidence of WWII. The UK, Germany, and Japan were all extensively bombed, and many major cities suffered great destruction. All this seemed to have very modest military or political effects.

The evidence for the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence looks very thin indeed. Are there good answers to the argument against nuclear weapons, which is that the weapons are unusable? Is it possible to build good arguments (of bluff, threat, possession, or any other way) for the deterrent effect of weapons which can never be used? This question becomes more pressing when we consider the many dangers of nuclear weapons - accident, international misunderstanding, and proliferation. Financial arguments also lend support (although this can never be a decisive argument, and greater expenditure on other forces may be considered necessary). These are no doubt the arguments which have led so many leaders to express pious hopes of a nuclear free world.

Fourth. How can the world disarm from nuclear weapons?

We don’t have to assume particular answers to the first three questions in trying to answer the fourth - everyone would sign up to the vision of a safer world without nuclear arms.

It is often pointed out that since nuclear science and technology is now widespread, it would be unwise for all nations simply to dispense with their nuclear forces. It could also be dangerous for (say) the US to disarm while Russia did not, as this could lead to political stability and uncertainty.

A number of steps are surely needed. Perhaps the first thing is for someone to to be believed when they call out “The Emperor’s got no clothes”. The weapons are not only immoral and dangerous, they are also useless. If this sounds naive and utopian, one could think for a moment about the use of poisons in war or by terrorists. Poisons have been used, and their use has been threatened, but by and large sense has prevailed, and they are seen as pointless and unusable for any kind of political goal. Chemical and biological weapons are forms of poison, and so are nuclear detonations.

Confidence also has to be increased. There are ways in which opposing nations can and do still agree ways of knowing each other’s intentions. In the days of the Cold War, the USA and the USSR still kept each other informed about military exercises and activities, to prevent one side thinking actively threatening movements were taking place. Disarmament negotiations have made progress, even if at times it seems very slow.

If perceptions are changed, confidence built, and disarmament talks make progress, that may help to discourage or even prevent proliferation.

Fifth. How can proliferation be prevented and how can terrorists be prevented from threatening nuclear destruction?

This is an urgent issue. If the perception that nuclear weapons and deterrence have very little use is more widely recognised, then obviously that would help the task of preventing proliferation. As perceptions are changed, confidence is built, and disarmament talks make progress, that would discourage or even prevent proliferation.

The third, fourth and fifth questions are not so fresh as the first two; they are all substantial problems which have received and continue to receive attention at many levels. The third question has been discussed in academia; but it is a question which could certainly be revived. The fourth and fifth questions are under active political consideration. Even though disarmament talks plod along very slowly, they have not been wholly ineffective. All the same, it is a question which needs a much higher public profile.

These questions outline a broad agenda for a fresh consideration of the future of nuclear weapons. The academic debates appeared moribund to Bobbitt nearly thirty years ago. Public debate runs along even more sterile lines (on the infrequent occasions when it ever takes place, that is). These questions may already be answered - but I do not know where. Perhaps they should be reframed, revised, supplemented or reduced. There are many apparently more pressing global issues - climate change, refugees, poverty, and so on. But there may now be opportunity to retrieve the nuclear debate from the long grass, and see whether life can be breathed into it.

Bibliographical note

I do not believe there is a substantial literature relevant to the first two questions posed. But the genuine purpose is to ask whether such work is being done, and what literature there is.

I have found Five myths about nuclear weapons by Ward Wilson (Mariner Books, Boston, 2014) helpful and interesting.

4 thoughts on “  Five fresh questions about nuclear deterrence”

  1. Nuclear weapons fall into two categories nuclear fusion explosions and spreading radioactive materials ie a dirty bomb and depleted uranium shell. David has restricted his analysis to WMDs. In 1950 nuclear weapons were several degrees of magnitude more destructive than any other weapon. The initial research was into building even bigger bombs. This is pretty pointless once one bomb destroys a city. Smaller bombs may be possible but their effect is pretty indiscriminate. all this closes the gap between nuclear and other weapons.

    Just war theory gives us a general understanding of what could be a just war and the appropriate means of pursuing it. This has guided the development of international law. The horror of the First World War lead to strong rules on chemical and biological agents. Later there has been a similar reaction to landmines. This shows that it is profitable to take weapons on a category by category basis.

    The ownership of nuclear weapons by only one power gives them an unacceptable blackmail capability. This can be lessened either by the complete destruction of nuclear weapons and preventing their manufacture or a balance of power. Thus the US should only destroy all its nuclear weapons if an effective inspection and control system can be devised. The alternative is progressive multilateral negotiations between Russia, China and the USA and parallel talks between Pakistan and India together with even handed pressure in the Middle East. This leaves a rather intractable problem of Korea.

    In the present situation I view independent Nuclear deterrents held by Britain and France to be strategically irrelevant. They are remnants of a former glory and a waste of money. There are better ways of spending the defense budget.


  2. Thank you, David Attwood, for kind words; surely the greater debt is ours for your welcome change of topic. Despite all the unimaginably dark dreams of DARPA, all Al Quaeda’s tactics for assymetric warfare, and the all the silent prowess of the cyberwarriors in many countries, the peoples in Asia still want old-fashioned nuclear weapons to keep them safe from neighbours nostalgic for imperial glory. I too hope that historians in the village know something that might dissuade them.

  3. No, the main argument for defensive nuclear weapons today is that they deter invasions from stronger neighbours at manageable cost. France for a time; Russia against NATO; India against China; Pakistan against India; North Korea against everybody. Saddam Hussein’s bluster about weapons of mass destruction now looks like a test of this strategy. If 9/11 and a new administration in Washington had not so changed his circumstances, would it have failed? Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and MAD do not motivate the Revolutionary Guard in Iran to want nuclear weapons; the Israeli air force does. Thank God, there is no battlefield experience of an invasion in progress stopped with actual use of nuclear weapons. But war-planners deal in possibilities. And anyway, nuclear weapons have immense psychological appeal to those in threatened countries. It is plain that in each of the named countries ordinary citizens have less fear– or hope– of an invasion.

    The main argument for nuclear missiles today is different– blackmail. Because North Korea has some nuclear capability, even missle tests have worked a few times. The same may someday happen in the Middle East when Iran is much closer to having a nuclear weapon. Russia’s current brinkmanship with NATO forces– buzzing jets at a distance of 10 feet, dogging submarines, etc– is not with nuclear weapons, but it is exploring the strategy of blackmail. A country with smaller forces than Russia’s could make similar use of nuclear weapons to menace another country in similar ways.

    Finally, it is not clear that the category ‘nuclear weapon’ is analytically helpful to ethical reasoning. There are nuclear bombs and nuclear missiles; there are nuclear grenades and nuclear shells. Nuclear weapons are not necessarily weapons of mass destruction. There is sarin; there is anthrax. What about radiation is more evil than poisoning or infection? A continuation of the old ethical arguments in much the same language may make us ever more thoughtful about the dilemmas of another time.

    The great new technnology in war is the precision that allows President Obama to target particular persons and their physically closest associates almost anywhere on the planet. A few die in each attack, and when we have heard of them, people cheer. Whether drones target the enemies of humanity or terrorists behead enemies of Allah, the violence force what the philosophers call a retreat into commitment. Where we might need a dialogue between cultures– are Christians called to faciliate this?– we get a rhetoric of criminality that preempts that inquiry.

    The big story here is that war is culture, and our wars are our culture, just as the wars of others are their cultures. We have protested the high casualties of war for a century and a half or so, although many of us accepted strategic bombing and missiles as an alternative to our own annihilation. In response, the technologists of war– even the ones who design nuclear weapons– have been designing wars with steadily fewer casualties. Now we have what so many wanted. Military neighbors who seem dauntingly fit say little about what they do, and sometimes ask us to pay the gardener and watch the house; they will be out of town. They return in a few weeks and we hear that some high-ranking terrorist is dead. Or we don’t. Is this the peace we prayed for?

    • I am grateful to Bowman Walton for his response. He argues that nations want nuclear arms to deter attack or invasion by other countries. Secondly he points out that “nuclear weapons” are of many different types and sizes. My article was concerned with nuclear weapons as weapons of mass destruction. But all nuclear weapons have a poisonous effect – and the international community has long been concerned to do a great deal to avoid or prevent any use of poisons in war fighting. This is a different, but related, discussion.

      Walton makes clear that many nations have believed, and continue to believe, that nuclear weapons offer a kind of effective military strength with a powerful deterrent effect. There can I think be no question about this. Belief in nuclear weapons is a reality, and as such has had real political effects. The world has lived with this belief for 70 years. My question is about whether there is a good basis for this belief. If, finally, possession of nuclear weapons is an acted out bluff, then sooner or later, that bluff will be revealed as such. The belief will crumble.

      That is why I suggest that it would be helpful to know what explicit threats of nuclear attack have been made, and what their results have been. If there have been vanishingly few such threats ever made (in a far from peaceful world), then it suggests strongly that the effect of nuclear weapons depends much more on shared beliefs in their usefulness, rather than on any usefulness as such. The same question applies, perhaps more forcefully, to threats of nuclear attack as blackmail (rather than defence). Have such blackmailing threats been made? What has happened as a result? I repeat, I ask these questions in all seriousness, not rhetorically.

      I hope there may be historians among Fulcrum followers who can point us to answers to my questions.

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