The deterrence myth

tags: nuclear weapons, nuclear war, Nuclear deterrence

In his classic The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (1989), Lawrence Freedman, the dean of British military historians and strategists, concluded: ‘The Emperor Deterrence may have no clothes, but he is still Emperor.’ Despite his nakedness, this emperor continues to strut about, receiving deference he doesn’t deserve, while endangering the entire world. Nuclear deterrence is an idea that became a potentially lethal ideology, one that remains influential despite having been increasingly discredited. 

After the United States’ nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, war changed. Until then, the overriding purpose of military forces had ostensibly been to win wars. But according to the influential US strategist Bernard Brodie writing in 1978: ‘From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.’ Thus, nuclear deterrence was born, a seemingly rational arrangement by which peace and stability were to arise by the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD, appropriately enough). Winston Churchill described it in 1955 with characteristic vigour: ‘Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.’ 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.

Even a brief examination, however, reveals that deterrence is not remotely as compelling a principle as its reputation suggests. In his novel The Ambassadors (1903), Henry James described a certain beauty as ‘a jewel brilliant and hard’, at once twinkling and trembling, adding that ‘what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next’. The public has been bamboozled by the shiny surface appearance of deterrence, with its promise of strength, security and safety. But what has been touted as profound strategic depth crumbles with surprising ease when subjected to critical scrutiny.

Let’s start by considering the core of deterrence theory: that it has worked. Advocates of nuclear deterrence insist that we should thank it for the fact that a third world war has been avoided, even when tensions between the two superpowers – the US and the USSR – ran high. Some supporters even maintain that deterrence set the stage for the fall of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Communism. In this telling, the West’s nuclear deterrent prevented the USSR from invading western Europe, and delivered the world from the threat of Communist tyranny.

There are, however, compelling arguments suggesting that the US and the former Soviet Union avoided world war for several possible reasons, most notably because neither side wanted to go to war. Indeed, the US and Russia never fought a war prior to the nuclear age. Singling out nuclear weapons as the reason why the Cold War never became hot is somewhat like saying that a junkyard car, without an engine or wheels, never sped off the lot only because no one turned the key. Logically speaking, there is no way to demonstrate that nuclear weapons kept the peace during the Cold War, or that they do so now. ...

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