Friday, June 3, 2011

Nuclear Deterrence Theory: still alive and kicking

One of the major impediments on the path to sustainable universal nuclear disarmament – meaning a world without nuclear weapons as well as the incentive to acquire them – is the persistent belief in the nuclear deterrence theory. This theory – which, in its most common form, claims that the threat of retaliation in kind will deter an opponent from carrying out a nuclear strike against you – was a cornerstone of the security mindset during the Cold War, yet continues to influence foreign and defence policies of nuclear weapon states, and such aspiring states, today.

Excellent efforts by academics, policy analysts and NGOs (with the support of some governments) have recently been undertaken to debunk the nuclear deterrence theory and as far as the present author is concerned, the reasoning displayed in these works is irrefutable and should convince anyone still in doubt of the uselessness of these instruments.[1] However, although there are hopeful signs that in some states the blind belief in nuclear deterrence is losing its grip on security thinking, in others the theory is still very much alive and kicking.

Consider these comments made by A.Q. Kahn, the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb and zealous proliferator of nuclear know-how and technology, in a recent article in Newsweek:

The question of how many weapons are required for credible deterrence against India is purely academic. [...] India doesn’t need more than five weapons to hurt us badly, and we wouldn’t need more than 10 to return the favor. That is why there has been no war between us for the past 40 years. [...] Don’t overlook the fact that no nuclear-capable country has been subjected to aggression or occupied, or had its borders redrawn. Had Iraq and Libya been nuclear powers, they wouldn’t have been destroyed in the way we have seen recently. If we had had nuclear capability before 1971, we would not have lost half of our country—present-day Bangladesh—after disgraceful defeat. [...] India and Pakistan understand the old principle that ensured peace in the Cold War: mutually assured destruction. The two can’t afford a nuclear war, and despite our saber rattling, there is no chance of a nuclear war that would send us both back to the Stone Age.

According to Mr. Kahn, nuclear weapons fulfil at least three essential functions: they keep the peace, bestow pride upon the nation and guarantee sovereignty. These comments should not be dismissed as the opinion of just one man. Unfortunately, Mr. Kahn’s thinking is still deeply embedded in the security mindset of many governments, and not just those of so-called “rogue states”. As actions speak louder than words, it is worth examining what the nuclear powers, according to a recent report by the Federation of American Scientists, are expected to do in the next decade in terms of developing their arsenals.

Pakistan is currently building up its nuclear arsenal at an alarming rate, and is expected to become the world’s fourth biggest nuclear state in the next decade or two. In an effort to keep up with its neighbour and main rival, India too is rapidly expanding its nuclear stockpile, eerily calling to mind the US-Russia nuclear arms race during the Cold War. Meanwhile, after conducting its second nuclear test in May 2009 and revealing an astonishingly modern new uranium enrichment facility late last year, North Korea is showing no signs of slowing down its nuclear programme. While the US and Russia have taken a moderate yet important step towards further reduction of their arsenals through the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, their combined nuclear stocks still account for over 95% of the world’s total. Meanwhile, Britain’s planned reduction of its nuclear weapons is merely the result of the country’s current climate of economic austerity, not a change in government policy on needing what it stubbornly continues to call a “nuclear deterrent”. Similarly, France’s projected slight nuclear stockpile reduction should by no means be interpreted as a move away from its love affair with its force de frappe. According to the report, the nuclear capabilities of China and Israel are expected to remain unchanged.

So while efforts to debunk the nuclear deterrence theory have gained traction in some circles, they have yet to reach the chambers of foreign -and defence policymaking. Because once the understanding that nuclear capability is not just useless but a source of insecurity permeates the security mindset, we can expect to see a race to zero, with nations eager to get rid of their nuclear weapons. Today this might seem like a highly improbable scenario. However, once this tipping point, which turns an instrument from a security guarantor into a liability, has been reached, is this really so hard to imagine?

[1] Worth mentioning is Security Without Nuclear Deterrence by Robert Green, The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence by Ward Wilson, and Delegitimizing Nuclear Weapons by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
[2] Newsweek, May 23-30, 2011


  1. The Santa Barbara Declaration is also a strong statement against the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. You can read and sign on to it online at

  2. I bet kim will swing first


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