Nuclear deterrence: It depends!

I repeated my doubts about the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence yesterday (and wrote about that previously here, here and here).

Nuclear deterrence worked obviously during the Cold War.
It could have gone very, very wrong - but it ended well.

My hypothesis is that the effect of nuclear weapons in terms of deterrence depends heavily on the circumstances. Let me show you four interesting cases. The underlying assumption is that "we" are rational.

Case a)
Foreign nuclear power:
Likely interaction:
..Peaceful co-existence
..Relations between France and Israel.

Case b)
Foreign nuclear power:
..It's rational, but a "bad guy" (has very much conflicting interests and
Likely interaction:
..Opposing each other politically, maybe in conventional war.
..NATO and Russia
..Nuclear war can be considered as unlikely because too little is at

Case c)
Foreign nuclear power:
..Ideological bad guy
Likely interaction:
..Political opposition and proxy wars.
..NATO and Warsaw Pact
..(Direct) warfare is too risky due to the possibility of nuclear

Case d)
Foreign nuclear power:
.."Mad" bad guy
Likely interaction:
..Immediate war.
..Taliban/AQ take-over of Pakistan
..A co-existence (waiting for their first strike) is too risky.
..They must not survive till their first strike, as the deterrence
..effect of nukes on them is highly questionable. The possession
..of nuclear weapons by that foreign power does not deter,
..but provokes war.

- - - - -

The own side is also relevant, of course. The four cases had the underlying assumption that we're rational. Some of "us" are probably rather "rational bad guys".
It seems to me as if the "worse" power dictates the nature of the interaction.

It's also possible to define different deterrence effects based on the variables of second strike ability and first strike side-effects. The Cold War time's concerns about the survivability of national C4 system and nuclear weapons carriers (SSBNs) for a second strike are an evidence for this.

The horror of nuclear weapons isn't that much different from the horror that poison gas caused during the interwar years. It was a usual assumption in the 30's that the next major war in Europe would include the mass gassing of city populations.
That didn't happen at all, poison gas was not used in European combat during WW2. Pandora's box was not opened because everyone feared it too much - as we do today with nuclear weapons. That fear did NOT prevent WW2, though!

The mere existence of nuclear weapons is unlikely to be a reliable deterrent to war. Most people seem to be stuck in the perception of nuclear deterrence that coined the Cold War. The context changed, and so did nuclear deterrence.

Sven Ortmann

P.S.: This is again a topic that deserves a full book or dissertation and cannot be covered well in a short blog text.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. Covers the problems very well. The thing about nuclear deterrence is the people using it. No one in the Soviet Union or Nato doubted that nuclear arms would be used should anyone feel threatened. I remember all too clearly the arguments and counter arguments about how to fight "limited" world wars. When the US began its long needed conventional forces build up in the early 1980s, which was largely meant to prevent Russia from succeeding in a conventional war, the problem of "unforeseen" nuclear war didn't go away. It was argued in the west that we had to build up our conventional forces to prevent a war. By the mid 1980s it was clear that we had quickly equaled, and then surpassed, Soviet conventional capabilities. But the nuclear problem didn't go away. Any confrontation would likely cause the Soviets to lose and use Nukes. It was always a no win situation which depended on reason triumphing over irrationality. Historically irrationality always wins. After the Soviets fell and we gained access to their archives we discovered that all our buildup did was convince the Soviets to go nuclear early and often to offset our advantages.