Emperor Deterrence Has No Clothes

This long Aeon article argues that the idea of nuclear deterrence has never been shown to work, is illogical and immoral.

What we can say is that, as of this morning, those with the power to exterminate life have not done so. But this is not altogether comforting, and history is no more reassuring. The duration of ‘nuclear peace’, from the Second World War to the end of the Cold War, lasted less than five decades. More than 20 years separated the First and Second World Wars; before that, there had been more than 40 years of relative peace between the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) and the First World War (1914), and 55 years between the Franco-Prussian War and Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (1815). Even in war-prone Europe, decades of peace have not been so rare. Each time, when peace ended and the next war began, the war involved weapons available at the time – which, for the next big one, would likely include nuclear weapons. The only way to make sure that nuclear weapons are not used is to make sure that there are no such weapons. There is certainly no reason to think that the presence of nuclear weapons will prevent their use. The first step to ensuring that humans do not unleash nuclear holocaust might be to show that the Emperor Deterrence has no clothes – which would then open the possibility of replacing the illusion with something more suitable…

Even when possessed by just one side, nuclear weapons have not deterred other forms of war. The Chinese, Cuban, Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions all took place even though a nuclear-armed US backed the overthrown governments. Similarly, the US lost the Vietnam War, just as the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan, despite both countries not only possessing nuclear weapons, but also more and better conventional arms than their adversaries. Nor did nuclear weapons aid Russia in its unsuccessful war against Chechen rebels in 1994-96, or in 1999-2000, when Russia’s conventional weapons devastated the suffering Chechen Republic. Nuclear weapons did not help the US achieve its goals in Iraq or Afghanistan, which have become expensive catastrophic failures for the country with the world’s most advanced nuclear weapons. Moreover, despite its nuclear arsenal, the US remains fearful of domestic terrorist attacks, which are more likely to be made with nuclear weapons than be deterred by them.

In short, it is not legitimate to argue that nuclear weapons have deterred anysort of war, or that they will do so in the future. During the Cold War, each side engaged in conventional warfare: the Soviets, for example, in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979-89); the Russians in Chechnya (1994-96; 1999-2009), Georgia (2008), Ukraine (2014-present), as well as Syria (2015-present); and the US in Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1955-75), Lebanon (1982), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989-90), the Persian Gulf (1990-91), the former Yugoslavia (1991-99), Afghanistan (2001-present), and Iraq (2003-present), to mention just a few cases.

It goes on like that. I find the arguments compelling. Still, if you are Iran, you can’t help noticing that the U.S. invaded Iraq and Libya after they were convinced to give up their nuclear weapons programs. If you are North Korea, you can’t help but notice that the U.S. has invaded several countries in Asia but is very hesitant to consider military options against you.

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