Nuclear Deterrence: Hardest Argument in the World to Refute

05/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

THE DEPROLIFERATOR -- Whether from the mouths of foreign-policy professionals or members of the public, we're all familiar with this refrain: "Sure, it would be nice to get rid of nuclear weapons. But deterrence has kept us safe for 50 years. If it's not broke, don't fix it."

Or as the authors of a recent article in Strategic Studies Quarterly write (quoting another author): "The web of social and political life is spun out of inclinations and incentives, deterrent threats and punishments." Take away the latter two and international society depends entirely on the former -- a utopian thought impractical "this side of Eden."

Not a difficult concept, nuclear deterrence means what it sounds like: We don't intend to attack anyone with our nukes, but woe unto he who dares attack us. Still there are subtleties to deterrence: here are three from the same authors [emphasis added]:

The threat of a nuclear-armed state to use its nuclear weapons in defense of vital interests... is almost inherently credible. [They] thereby greatly enhance stability.

...the potential costs of aggression against a nuclear-armed adversary would be 'paid up front,' as opposed to over a long period of mutual attrition, and are thus 'clearer' to decision makers.

...a secure nuclear arsenal has the effect of 'sanctuarizing' the states that possess them. [Theoretically, that is. -- RW]

In The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Third Edition, Sir Lawrence Freedman cited a few more. He wrote about nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling, who "defined deterrence as.. potential force [or] latent violence... It was thus a form of bargaining, albeit dirty [and] extortionate." What's more, it meant that, "Military strategy could no longer be the science of military victory. Rather it would be the art of coercion, intimidation and deterrence. If anything, [Schelling] suggested, a stable balance of terror could simply be viewed as 'a massive and modern version of an ancient institution: the exchange of hostages'."

Is Deterrence Still Needed Today? Even though the Cold War has ended, as long as any state possesses nuclear weapons, it would be the height of counterintuitiveness on the part of the United States to forsake them. As for the enduring usefulness of deterrence, here's Freedman in an October 2000 Arms Control Today article:

Russia was experiencing a growing sense of insecurity as its illusions of great power were stripped away... NATO had not only stayed in business while the Warsaw Pact had disbanded but [was] edging ever closer to the Russian heartland... The relationship with Russia therefore remained uneasy at best and argued for a deterrent posture to be sustained on a sort of care-and-maintenance basis.

Another element of deterrence's allure is its tidiness. Freedman continues:

...whole categories of actions... are precluded because of the possible responses [nuclear, that is -- RW]... Land may be coveted, but it is not grabbed... punches are pulled. [In fact] the act of deterrence may be no more than a hint here and a quiet word there... Only on occasion does it become necessary to move to the direct, explicit threats commonly associated with a deterrent posture.

Why Deterrence May Not Work -- if It Ever Really Has

Is deterrence really all that it's cracked up to be? Is its success quantifiable? Freedman from his book again (emphasis added):

It was indisputable that the event that was supposed to be deterred [a nuclear attack, of course -- RW] during the cold war had not occurred. [But some said] that 'strategies of deterrence... were generally more provocative than restraining and that they prolonged rather than ended the Cold War'. The superpowers, they contended, 'overdosed' on deterrence. "It poisoned their relationship [and] was self-defeating; it provoked the kind of behavior it was designed to prevent."

It was certainly possible to point to aspects of the deterrence system that added to the dangers of crisis, such as intelligence-gathering or a raised alert status. [Also, it may have] discouraged alternative ways of addressing... disputes [such as] diplomacy and dialogue. [Furthermore, the] cost of deterrence was high, in terms of the levels of military readiness it required, and the research and investment in new weaponry.

Then Freedman cited respected disarmament writer Scott Sagan, who has written about a "parallel narrative of hair-raising stories," such as "the close calls in the nuclear history of the United States... the breakdowns in organizational procedures [and the] straying aircraft and temperamental technologies [that] that could have led to unauthorized detonations."

In a November 2008 Nonproliferation Review article titled The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence, Ward Wilson offers three fresh arguments that:

...put the efficacy of nuclear deterrence into doubt: 1) the characteristic attack threatened in most nuclear deterrence scenarios -- city attack -- is not militarily effective or likely to be decisive; 2) the psychology of terror that is supposed to work in nuclear deterrence's favor actually creates the circumstances for unremitting resistance; and 3) even though the field is mostly conjectural, what little unambiguous evidence does exist contradicts the claim that nuclear deterrence works.

Meanwhile, at, Andrew Lichterman argues that crediting deterrence with keeping us safe, lo, these many years is premature. He questions whether it's ever actually been tested:

... most policy experts believe at some level that "deterrence works." And yet we have not faced a moment in which the fundamental drivers of conflict among the most powerful states have been present -- competition over key resources, intensifying political tension within states over wealth distribution, and general collapse of a prevailing "normal" order... since before the dawn of the nuclear age. [Emphasis added.]

Perhaps most frightening, Sagan reminds us: "a president's deterrent threat does not just reflect a commitment to retaliate; it creates a commitment."

Next: Those Who Will Not Be Deterred. In a recent International Security article, Francis Gavin explains:

Today's "rogue" states and terrorist organizations. . . may not be as deterrable as the Soviets and the Americans were during the first nuclear age. Their leaders may not be as rational; they might value human life so little that they would be willing to use nuclear weapons despite the threat of retaliation; or they could find nonconventional and nontraceable ways of delivering nuclear weapons.

The Upshot

It's tough to argue against deterrence because, except for its likely ineffectuality with terrorists, it's so darned intuitive. Maybe, instead, the answer lies in explaining to the public that it can be made more effective.* Huh? More nuclear weapons? No, but deterrence does settle for too little -- instead of domination, standoff. Nuclear weapons, the great equalizer, furnish lesser military powers that possess them with the power of life and death over the United States. To a nation with our overwhelming conventional military superiority, that should be a source of national humiliation. Besides, it makes a mockery of the security we think we're buying with the vast amount of money we spend on conventional weapons.

In the words of Francis Gavin again, during the Cold War, nuclear weapons:

. . . were often the cause of crises that would never have occurred in the prenuclear world. ... They nullified the influence of other, more traditional forms of power, such as conventional forces and economic strength, allowing the Soviet Union to minimize the United States' enormous economic, technological, and even "soft power" advantages. [Even worse] as historian Marc Trachtenberg argues. . . "The side . . . more willing to run the risk of nuclear war has the upper hand and will prevail in a showdown." . . . In such a world, there would be a "great premium on resolve. . . and perhaps ultimately on recklessness." [Emphasis added.]

In other words, to the foolhardy may go the game. Once again fear leaves us much less safer than, by all rights, we ought to be.

*Lessons in true world peace will have to wait until next semester.

First posted at the Faster Times.