Nuclear deterrence does not deter

Iran missile test

Nuclear deterrence is a myth and a lethal one at that.

Nuclear deterrence continues to dominate international relations. Yet there is no proof it ever worked, nor that it ever will… (David P. Barash,, 14 January 2018)

According to recent articles in the New York Times and Huffington Post, President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review will propose many more uses for nuclear weapons than has hitherto been the case.

That is why the examination by David P. Baresh of the alleged justifications for nuclear deterrence is such a timely one.

He starts with a central point that is often overlooked:

Importantly, deterrence became not only a purported strategy, but the very grounds on which governments justified nuclear weapons themselves. Every government that now possesses nuclear weapons claims that they deter attacks by their threat of catastrophic retaliation. [emphasis added]

But what is the evidence that nuclear weapons do, in fact, deter attacks? The USA and Russia never fought a war prior to the nuclear age. The Cold War record is glaringly absent of evidence that either side wanted to go to war. And while it is possible that the post-1945 US–Soviet peace came ‘through strength’, that need not imply nuclear deterrence but sufficient conventional armaments to discourage adventurism. And as for the Cuban Missile Crisis:

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — when, by all accounts, the world came closer to nuclear war than at any other time — is not testimony to the effectiveness of deterrence: the crisis occurred because of nuclear weapons. It is more likely that we have been spared nuclear war not because of deterrence but in spite of it.

So while the evidence is sketchy that nuclear weapons kept the peace between the Soviet Union and the USA during the Cold War, it is indisputable that they did not prevent other forms of war.

During the Cold War, each side engaged in numerous conventional wars. Nor have their weapons deterred attacks upon nuclear-armed states by non-nuclear opponents. For example:

–          China in support of North Korea in 1950;

–          Argentina attacking the British-held Falkland Islands in 1982; and

–          Iraq lobbing Scud missiles at Israel in 1991.

Deterrence, in short, does not deter.

Baresh also goes on to demonstrate how nuclear weapons are spectacularly unsuccessful as instruments of coercive diplomacy:

In Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy (2017), the political scientists Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann examined 348 territorial disputes occurring between 1919 and 1995. They used statistical analysis to see whether nuclear-armed states were more successful than conventional countries in coercing their adversaries during territorial disputes. They weren’t.

But the evidence against the utility of nuclear deterrence is only part of the problem. One must also consider the extraordinary risks associated with nuclear deterrence from escalation, miscalculation, accident, unauthorized or irrational use, or false alarms.

The above describes only some of the inadequacies and outright dangers posed…. when it comes to nuclear deterrence, we’re all in over our heads.

Click here for the full article.

For an even deeper analysis, see: The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence (Ward Wilson, Non-Proliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, November 2008)


Photo credit: Wikimedia.



Tags: cold war, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), Non-proliferation, NPT, Nuclear Deterrence, Nuclear disarmament, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Nuclear Posture Review, Nuclear weapons, Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons