Deterrence theory in terms of nuclear weaponry is the idea that nuclear weapons are intended to deter other states from attacking with their nuclear weapons through the promise of retaliation and possibly mutually assured destruction, however when this theory comes into practice, does it hold up?
Politically and strategically, possessing nuclear weapons theoretically comes with very important and positive factors for a state. Firstly, the idea that the mere possession of a nuclear arsenal will deter any other states from attacking can be seen as a way of cutting military costs in favour of a one-time payment of protection, which is a more cost-effective in terms of defence spending for smaller states, and secondly the diplomatic prowess that comes with possessing such weapons, as any state in possession of nuclear weapons gains more bargaining power on the global stage.
Mutually assured destruction as a deterrent could explain the extended period of peace the major powers in the world are currently engaged in, as no side could guarantee its own safety in the face of nuclear weaponry, therefore there’s more incentive to settle disagreements via diplomatic means, best described through Defence Analyst Edward Luttwak’s statement “Rational minds… extracted a durable peace from the very terror of nuclear weapons.” Surely an extended period of peace is desired by most, therefore is nuclear deterrence working?
John Mueller argues the opposite, that the period of peace would still be likely to happen without the threat of mutually assured destruction via nuclear weapons, as since World War II, world powers are satisfied with the status quo established with the Potsdam Agreement in 1945. Not only this, the realisation that wars can escalate to a scale similar to that in the second world war is a realisation that war is too costly to wage on that scale, which makes diplomatic negotiations more enticing.
Ward Wilson, a leading figure in the argument of whether nuclear deterrence, and a senior fellow at the Centre for Non-proliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, details a number of arguments that question the established consensus that nuclear deterrence indeed works. He argues that because “City bombing” is the driving idea behind nuclear deterrence, nuclear weapons are militarily ineffective and are more likely to divisive rather than decisive.
City bombing was a defining feature of the second world war, and whilst war-time Britain was characterised by extensive aerial raids between 1940 and 1941. Industrial cities such as Liverpool and Manchester fell victim to bombing during The Blitz, however this was not decisive enough to lead to a British surrender, so in an age of nuclear weaponry, is it purely down to the raw power of a nuclear detonation that nuclear deterrence is successful?
Wilson argues no, by referring to the means by which city bombings occur. He argues that the aims of city bombings are the same as they have always been, however the means by which city bombings occur have shifted from incendiary to nuclear. He argues that city bombing is city bombing, no matter the weapon that is used, therefore this has no impact on the end goal, dismissing nuclear deterrence as a successful military policy.
Whilst nuclear weapons can be considered a deterrent to fend off other nuclear and non-nuclear states, can the same deterrence be applied to non-state actors such as ISIS? The United States, France and the United Kingdom are all NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) recognised states, however they have all fallen victim to attacks claimed by non-state actors. This opens another question entirely. Despite the success or failure of nuclear deterrence against other nuclear nations, in an age where non-state actors are gaining more influence upon international affairs, does the argument for nuclear deterrence still have any relevance at all?
Wilson, Ward. The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence, Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15 No. 3, November 2008.
Mueller, John. ‘The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World,’ in The Cold War and After: Prospects for Peace. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), pp. 45-69.
Payne, Keith B. Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age, University Press of Kentucky, 1996.