Issue Briefs

Re-examining the Nuclear Deterrence Theory

Nuclear weapons are an inevitable reality in the contemporary world and they continue to dominate international politics and foreign policy. While few countries are expanding their nuclear stockpiles or proliferating through illicit means, some countries are undergoing what may be termed as “nuclear interphase” or the preparation stage. The current century is witnessing the preparation stage for what would eventually result in a few more nuclear babies in the international community. While nuclear proliferation is widely justified through the validity of the nuclear deterrence theory, it is important to reconsider the potency of the concept in relation to the challenges in today’s changing world order.

Nuclear Deterrence Theory

The concept of deterrence became prominent during the Cold War era with the end of the nuclear monopoly previously enjoyed by the USA. Deterrence is defined in simple terms by Glenn Snyder as “the power to dissuade.”[1] Alexander George and Richard Smoke describe it as, “simply the persuasion of one’s opponent that the costs and/or risks of a given course of action . . . outweigh its benefits.”[2] Thomas Schelling calls deterrence “a threat . . . intended to keep an adversary from doing something.”[3]

When applying deterrence to the nuclear dimension, as some may argue, the whole dynamics of deterrence becomes more dangerous, or, as nuclear optimists believe, makes relations more stable keeping nuclear exchange at bay.

According to the theory of nuclear deterrence, A can deter B by threatening to use nuclear weapons if B does not act in accordance with A. For successful implementation of deterrence, B has to consider A’s threat as credible. In case another country possesses nuclear weapons say C, the theory holds that A would be deterred from attacking C, resulting in a deadlock. In addition to this, if C protects B under its “umbrella”, then A would be deterred from attacking B because of the fear of getting attacked by C.[4]

If A has a monopoly on nuclear weapons, then it can threaten other states without fearing a reprisal. Nuclear deterrence theory is based primarily on the logic that the damage caused by the use of nuclear weapons is intolerable and states would favor peace to the possibility of an acute war. In August 1945, Japan became the victim of the “ultimate weapon of mass destruction” when the U.S. introduced nuclear weapons into the arena of warfare. This created a situation in which the U.S. was free to threaten other nations without deterrence, while others would be deterred from threatening or attacking the US.

For nuclear deterrence to work effectively, some assumptions must be taken into account:[5]

  • The actors involved are rational.
  • The risk must be excessively higher compared to the possible gain.
  • The theory usually operates in a bi-polar set up where two or more nuclear powers exist.
  • Presence of a nuclear triad i.e. the capability to considerably decrease the likelihood that the opponent could wipe out all of the country’s nuclear forces in a first strike attack; subsequently guarantees a credible threat of a second strike. This is also known as survivability.
  • The nuclear power clearly addresses to the adversary what is considered as an unfavorable act and does not pass ambiguous messages.
  • The adversary is convinced that the coercer has the capability and the resolution to inflict unacceptable damage. This would primarily be based on enforcement cost, compliance cost and resistance cost.

The theory of deterrence works only when the above mentioned assumptions are accepted. Similar to numerous other theories, however, the application of nuclear deterrence theory in real time politics is problematic.

Even though the nuclear deterrence theory establishes the role of nuclear weapons as a protector and an instrument of avoiding war rather than leading to one, this remains highly contested. With the evolution of nuclear strategies, nuclear deterrence theory has become dynamic. Albeit the basic logic it proffers remains intact, adjustments have been made to the theory to suit the complexities of global politics.

USA enjoyed a monopolistic position of nuclear possession till 1949, when USSR tested its first nuclear weapon. This marked a period of a complex game of nuclear deterrence. With two nuclear nations, the stakes involved were high. During the Cold War period, nuclear deterrence remained the hallmark of military strategies. Nuclear deterrence in this period meant that both countries, namely the USA and USSR, had nuclear capability and could inflict “unacceptable damage”. Nuclear optimists professed that this would form the basis of a stable world order as no country would wish to spark a nuclear war that would result in the complete annihilation of politically significant regions.

The outcome of a nuclear exchange inherently pointed towards “unacceptable damage”, which was proudly employed to promote the idea of nuclear deterrence theory. As per the theory, having a second-strike capability that overcomes a first strike is not sufficient. Second-strike capability should be able to counter-attack the opponent with a degree of unacceptable damage. Theoretically, the concept appears to be effective but it is important to define “unacceptable damage”. One of the clear limitations on the theory lies in this concept which may be misleading. There are no concrete stipulations about what degree of damage or destruction is deemed “unacceptable”. For this concept to suffice in practical strategic application, it is crucial to identify an acceptable level of destruction in tangible terms. To clarify the matter, optimists emphasized on the significance of comprehending the opponent’s cost-benefit calculations, but no instructions were presented on how to gain it.[6]

Moreover, it is not possible to guarantee that after suffering from a nuclear offensive, the country will be capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on the aggressor, and even if it does, it is difficult to assure that the level would be considered unacceptable to the aggressor.[7] Evidently, this term is ambiguous and sparks a fruitless race of maintaining superior defensive measures.

George Lee Butler[8] believed that the “unacceptable damage” issue was impossible to quantify or operationalise. The US ended up targeting over 16,000 locations in the USSR with ready delivery systems, but could still never be sure that they could have an “adequate” second-strike capacity to cause the necessary amount of “unacceptable damage”. Butler revealed that he was himself so shaken, when he took over supreme command, by the revelation of the insane logic that was operating in US nuclear preparations in the name of deterrence efficacy that he began to systematically question the basic assumptions of such thinking and the security paradigm based on it.[9]

Another problematic issue within the concept of “unacceptable damage” is the moral paradox. Nuclear deterrence relies on a ‘shock and awe’ strategy, particularly in terms of city devastation. The possibility of an exchange is unlikely when the destruction of numerous cities is involved in the calculation.[10] If deterrence fails, non-combatants are automatically included, killing millions of innocent people. Hence, the use of nuclear weapons, even as a deterrent, involves significant moral implications.

When faced with the possibility of an extreme degree of destruction, countries can be expected to invest in a strong defensive system to deter the opponent. The Cold War evidently carved out such a picture of arms race owing to the “security dilemma” created by each others capacity to punish the opponent with a nuclear attack. The fear of a nuclear attack dominated every decision in Washington and Moscow, leading to a massive arms race. Challenging the very notion of stability offered by nuclear deterrence theory, the countries armed themselves with technologically advanced nuclear capabilities to gain a comparative advantage in the game of deterrence, eventually leading to global instability.

Statistics clearly show that Warsaw and NATO countries were amassing arms at a relentless pace. Warsaw pact tank holdings rose from 35,000 in 1961 to almost 51,000 in 1991, whilst NATO held approximately 23,000 (primarily because USSR focused on land invasion of W. Europe). During the same period, ballistic missile systems in USSR’s possession augmented from 326 in 1979 to 1,624 in 1990. In comparison, US’s ballistic missiles rose from 1,213 in 1979 to 2,322 in 1990. (See appendix)[11]

The concepts of “assured destruction” and “mutually assured destruction” punctuated the language of military strategists and governments, taking the theory of nuclear deterrence to a new level. While the concepts of first and second strike capability became vivid, there was a rising probability of a Soviet surprise attack on the States. The term assured destruction, articulated by McNamara in mid-1960s meant to: “Deter a deliberate nuclear attack by maintaining at all times a clear and unmistakable ability to inflict an unacceptable degree of damage upon any aggressor, or combination of aggressors—even after absorbing a surprise first strike.”[12]

In order to ensure this form of destruction, the superpowers developed portable land missile systems, submarine launched missiles, and warheads measured in ‘multi-megatons’. Perpetual search for superior weapons paved way for the idea of mutual assured destruction (MAD).

Accordance to the logic of nuclear deterrence, nuclear countries would not be able to attack each other owing to the fear of MAD, thus creating stability in the global arena. Ironically, reality does not hum the same tune. Since each country’s weapons and arsenals are subject to continuous technological progress, equilibrium between the nuclear nations is constantly re-establishing itself. Therefore, the idea of parity is based on a situation that is complex (if not impossible) to assess and, therefore, does not ensure stability.[13]

During the cold war, a nuclear stalemate did not prevail, as technology and the massive arms race continuously altered the conditions of competition. New offensive and defensive weapons came to the front, upsetting the so-called stability of the period. To name a few, security strategists were introduced to Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), anti-ballistic missiles (ABM), and Intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), as well as the so-called “star wars” project of ballistic missile defense. Thus, rather than acting as a stabilizing force, nuclear weapons extended the “security dilemma” between powers, further undermining global stability.

Tensions and uncertainties engulfed the world during the cold war period, where two nuclear powers contested for relative advantage over the other. Even if we consider the temporary phases of stability between perpetual tensions across the iron curtain, nuclear deterrence theory may seem relevant. On the contrary, if we apply the same theory to the contemporary times, the theory would lack relevance.

In the multi-polar world of today, nuclear power is not just limited to two actors (as assumed in the theory), but is possessed by numerous countries, declared and undeclared. It has been argued that there we numerous instances where US-Soviet relations contributed to “nuclear peace”, and that a bi-polar confrontation made it easier to estimate potential threats.[14] Although this view is contested, it is important to realize that even if this statement is true; such a set-up would not be possible in today’s world of multiple nuclear powers, which now include USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and possibly North Korea and Syria.

Tellingly, study on the cause and effect of nuclear proliferation has not found its basis in nuclear deterrence theory. Works devoted to this have not drawn much from the fundamental works of Hermann Kahn, Thomas Schelling, Glen Snyder, and other proponents of the theory. Certainly, some work has openly disregarded the notion of nuclear deterrence, considering it as an irrelevant and a misleading relic of the Cold War, although some nuclear optimists reinforce the belief that deterrence successfully discouraged the Soviet Union and argue for its continued relevance.[15]

To this effect, nuclear optimists argue that the stabilizing effect of the nuclear deterrence is responsible for the fact that the 20th century has not witnessed any total wars. Undoubtedly, nuclear attack has not been used in war since 1945, and the nuclear bomb has been kept at bay in the present conflicts. However, the world today is a victim of a different kind of instability. “Nuclear peace” at higher level has cultivated instability at lower level (regional), termed as “stability-instability paradox”.

Deterrence theory fails to explain the following cases: North Korea was not deterred from attacking South Korea in 1950, nor were Egypt and Syria deterred from attacking Israel in 1973. Additionally, Argentina was not deterred from capturing the British Falklands in 1982, Saddam not discouraged from seizing Kuwait in 1990 and Pakistan was not dissuaded from implementing the Kargil scheme.[16]

Moreover, the spread of nuclear weapons does not ensure global stability. Contrary to it, the hunger to acquire weapons of mass destruction clearly suggests that different states are ready to resort to the utmost level of destruction. Therefore, in an ambiance of persistent friction, nuclear weapons can never assure stability.

In the era of terrorism, there is a new dimension to the analysis. Possession of nuclear weapons, by state and non-state actors alike, provides its holder with a sense of security against opponents and sometimes used as a means of deterrence. “Nuclearisation” which was previously limited to recognized states now stretches across to terrorists and rogue states. The inherent power of nuclear power to deter, punish, or coerce makes it attractive for non-state actors that bear starkly different notions of victory and utopia. Nuclear technology may be used by terrorists or separatist groups to influence the political behavior of states.

Traditionally, state behavior has been regulated through periodic communication and mutual treaties. In regard to non-state entities, it is impossible to articulate treaties, or to have logical settlement through negotiation or agreements. Nuclear deterrence theory revolves around states and was earlier applied to strategies between military blocks. With the emergence of militant, non-state entities, deterrence theory requires a reorientation.

Perhaps one of the most severe criticisms of the nuclear deterrence theory is the main assumption of the theory, i.e. the decision-makers act rationally. Firstly, we would apply this assumption to the real time politics between states. Further ahead, we would test this assumption in case of a non-state or anti-state actor.

According to the theory, it is believed that states would be rational enough not to get involved in a nuclear exchange because of high stakes. Depending on nuclear deterrence for security is always a gamble, which may or may not fail. Trusting the theory for the notion of guaranteed safety is imprudent, as it is impossible to utilize the theory in the real world, where real time pressures and human element makes things unpredictable. As the theory works between two nuclear powers, it is difficult to state with certainty that both sides have mutually understood the basic concepts and the opponent’s doctrine.

As described by Colonel Charles in ‘Nuclear Deterrence in the Third Millennium’, deterrence is a state of mind that prevents a deterree from acting in a way the deterrer considers harmful.[17] It is important to note that deterrence is considered a state of mind which must prevail in the opponent’s mind. It has frequently been argued that during conflicts, where pressure dominates every move and analysis (because of a possible nuclear exchange), the possibility of miscalculations of messages cannot be ruled out. Nuclear deterrence has no answers for situations of an accidental nuclear launch or miscalculations and misinterpretations.

On October 24, 1962 (during the Cuban Missile Crisis), a Soviet satellite entered its own parking orbit, and shortly afterward exploded. Sir Bernard Lovell, director of the Jodrell Bank observatory wrote in 1968: “the explosion of a Russian spacecraft in orbit during the Cuban missile crisis… led the U.S. to believe that the USSR was launching a massive ICBM attack.”[18] This could have sparked a nuclear war without reason, due to miscalculation.

Also, it is difficult to perfectly understand the real intentions about an enemy from whom one has been alienated. This was evident in the speech of General Lee Butler, where he emphasized that, “…deterrence left the antagonists to grope fearfully in a fog of mutual misperception. While we [USA] clung to the notion that nuclear war could be reliably deterred, Soviet leaders derived from their historical experience the conviction that such a war might be thrust upon them and if so, must not be lost…deterrence was a dialogue of the blind with the deaf.’[19]

Furthermore, if we consider this argument in the light of non-state or anti-state actors, the idea of rational actors becomes irrelevant. U.S has been maintaining nuclear weapons for apparent ‘non-use’ and is continuously enhancing its nuclear capabilities. This is done with a rationale of maintaining the power to deter rogue states and terrorist organizations. Objectively, the growing threat from such entities seems to entail states to rely on nuclear deterrence. On a subjective front, this seems to be conflicting. Deterring an enemy by threatening to destroy it may work with states but not with terrorists and rogue states, which (in political terms) have nothing to lose.

According to French social theorist Paul Virilio, speaking on Swiss Radio a month after September 11, the theory falls apart because the anti-state actors have no intention of reducing damage on his side. Contemporarily, suicide bombing marks out the strategy employed by terrorists (Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas). Deterrence, structured around rational actors, is irrelevant in regard to terrorists who exercise erratic and self-immolating tactics, where force may not be rational at all.[20] Therefore, hoping that rationality prevails in every decision a state or non-state actor takes, is imprudent as otherwise considered by the theory.

Even though nuclear deterrence may have worked in some instances during the Cold War and otherwise, the theory fails to apply universally or convincingly in the changing environment of today. Holding nuclear power for security purpose is a diplomatic explanation which needs to be questioned now. It is hope camouflaged as strategic insight, and cannot be allowed to determine the future course of world affairs. Nuclear weapons, no matter how prestigious and important, are weapons of mass destruction. They can never assure stability through deterrence and should not be mixed with politics, which is dicey by nature.


[1] Glenn H. Snyder, ‘‘Deterrence and Defense,’’ reprinted in Robert J. Art and Kenneth N. Waltz, eds., The Use of Force: International Politics and Foreign Policy, University Press of America, New York, 1983, cited in Ward Wilson, ‘The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence’, The Nonproliferation Review, 15: 421 – 439,http://pdfserve.informaworld.com/33614__903544593.pdf, 2008, (accessed 18 March 2009).

[2] Alexander George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice,Columbia University Press, New York, 1974, p. 11 cited in Ward Wilson, ‘The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence’, The Nonproliferation Review, 15: 421 – 439, http://pdfserve.informaworld.com/33614__903544593.pdf, 2008, (accessed 18 March 2009).

[3] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence, Yale University Press, New Haven: CT, 1966, p. 69 cited in Ward Wilson, ‘The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence’, The Nonproliferation Review, 15: 421 – 439,, 2008, (accessed 18 March 2009).

[4] David Krieger, ‘Nuclear Deterrence, Missile Defenses and Global Instability’, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, , 2001 (accessed 28 February 2009).

[5] The assumptions have been articulated from different sources. Lawrence Freedman and Srinath Raghavan, Coercion in Security Studies, Routledge Publication, Oxford, 2008, p. 217. and Patrick M. Morgan, Deterrence Now, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 15-20. [6] Patrick M. Morgan, Deterrence Now,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, p. 15.

[7] The idea reflected in this section of ‘unacceptable damage’ has largely based on the following article. Achin Vanaik, ‘Ten Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence’, The Little Magazine Vol III, Issue 5&6,, 2003 (accessed 6 March 2009).

[8] George Lee Butler headed the US Strategic Air Command for 12 years, was a key Presidential adviser between 1992, and 1995 and subsequently turned a nuclear disarmer.

[9] Achin Vanaik, ‘Ten Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence’, The Little Magazine Vol III, Issue 5&6,, 2003 (accessed 6 March 2009).

[10] Ward Wilson, ‘The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence’, The Nonproliferation Review, 15: 421 – 439,http://pdfserve.informaworld.com/33614__903544593.pdf, 2008, (accessed 18 March 2009).

[11] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, Penguin Books, London, 2005, p. 218, 220, 222.

[12] Enthoven, Alain, Smith and Wayne, How much is enough? Shaping the Defense Program 1961-1969, Harper and Row, New York, 1971, p. 174, cited in Lawrence Freedman, ‘Assured Destruction’ in The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Third Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003, p. 233.

[13] Anders I. Thunborg, ‘Doctrines of Deterrence and Other Theories’ in Nuclear Weapons, Frances Pinter Limited, London, 1981, p. 113.

[14] Lewis A. Dunn, ‘New Nuclear Threats to U.S Security’ in New Nuclear Nations: Consequences for U.S Policy,Robert D. Blackwill & Albert Carnesale, Council on Foreign Relations Press, New York, 1993, p. 40.

[15] Robert Powell, ‘Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense’, International Security, 27: 86-118, , 2003 (accessed 28 February 2009).

[16] Sitakanta Mishra, The Challenge of Nuclear Terror, Knowledge World International, New Delhi, 2008, p. 5.

[17] Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Durr Jr, ‘Nuclear Deterrence in the Third Millennium’, Army War College, , 2002 (accessed 18 March 2009).

[18] Alan F. Philips, ‘20 Mishaps That Might Have Started Accidental Nuclear War’, Nuclear Fileshttp://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/issues/accidents/20-mishaps-maybe-caused-nuclear-war.htm, 1998 (accessed 18 March 2009).

[19] The statement has been incorporated from a speech, ‘The Risks of Nuclear Deterrence: From Superpowers to Rogue Leaders’ given at the National Press Club by General Lee Butler on 2nd February, 1998 available at , 1998 (accessed 18 March 2009).

[20] Binoy Kampmark, ‘America’s nuclear deterrence in the age of terrorism – a discussion of U.S. foreign policy and nuclear policy in the present and past 20 years’,Contemporary Review, , 2003, (accessed 18 March 2009).

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