I’ve been wanting to write on nuclear deterrence for a long time. Part of why I haven’t is that too many of the arguments make my head spin. But another one showed up last week, and my head isn’t spinning yet.
The article is mostly an argument against some of the things that the estimable Ward Wilson has written, and I’ll leave it to him to respond to that. What I’d like to do is to look at the deterrence argument from another perspective.
We have to start with elephants. Why have elephants not invaded my house? It could be because I have been snapping my fingers regularly and conscientiously, a well-known preventive against elephant attack.
Or it could be that there are no elephants loose in Santa Fe. It could be that, if there were, my house would be unattractive to them.
The point of that well-known joke is that one must consider all possible reasons for an observation, not take the first one that comes along or is the most congenial.
Likewise, there may be many reasons why nuclear weapons have not been used in war since Nagasaki. Wilson argues that the nuclear strikes against Japan in World War II were not the reason for Japan’s surrender, and that the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons is less than has been believed.
Deterrence (without adjective) has been around for a long time. Build up a big, capable military force, and your opponents are less likely to start military action against you. They are deterred because they believe they are likely to lose, just as burglars are deterred by a big dog in the yard.
There are other reasons beyond deterrence that nations do not go to war. War is expensive and destructive; the common people may cheer it on at first, but deaths among their friends and relatives will eventually lose their support. Other issues like internal problems of unity or economics can make war undesirable.
Nuclear weapons loomed large after WWII. A single nuclear weapon could inflict the same damage as the thousands of bombs dropped in a WWII firebombing raid. Shortly after the war, one of the allies developed its own nuclear weapons and made it clear that its foreign policy included removal of governments of different ideologies by force.
Because of that focus by the Soviet Union, and because the United States had escaped Europe’s enormous damage, the rivalry between those two countries dominated the postwar world until Mikhail Gorbachev changed the focus.
During that time, deterrence came to mean nuclear deterrence, the rest of its meaning sheared away. Now that the Soviet Union is twenty years defunct, we should be considering the broader meaning of deterrence and the other reasons that nations do not go to war. Here is an example of some thinkers doing just that, on deterring terrorists.
But let’s stay with nuclear deterrence for this post. In the form it has come to us, that of two superpowers deterring each other from nuclear use, it’s mostly of historical interest. A few in both America and Russia may think this is still an option, but Russia has turned to economic pursuits to a degree that the prospect of world destruction no longer looks attractive to most of its leaders, and America should be getting tired of wars by now. More generally, it seems that the idea that a few hundred nuclear weapons would cause destruction far beyond their targets is generally accepted.
Why have nuclear weapons not been used in war for the past sixty-six years? The argument for deterrence, as in that first link, all too often is that they have not been used because of deterrence and therefore deterrence works. But that is a circular argument. There are other factors that have restrained nations from nuclear war.
After World War II, the United States had, for a short time, a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and most nations were tired of war, so there was little reason to use them. The Soviet Union had the explicitly aggressive doctrine of spreading its form of government by removing other governments, so, once it acquired nuclear weapons it might have been expected to use nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies. Conversely, the United States might have used nuclear weapons pre-emptively against the Soviet Union to end that threat. Governmental officials and advisors on both sides argued for such actions.
This situation was far too unstable, and both sides arrived at an understanding that destroying the world in the service of their respective ideologies was probably not worth it. That simple statement is often dressed up in the language of game theory and other academic pastimes, partly to convince the other side and partly because those were the kind of people involved. That kind of analysis makes my head spin. The many books written from that point of view offer explanations, but not insight.
When China developed nuclear weapons, there was great concern that the deterrence applecart might be upset. China had only recently had a bloody revolution to Communism, and its rhetoric was inflammatory. This was part of the motivation for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Another part of the motivation was that too many nuclear weapons in too many hands would have made an even more unstable situation. By the 1960s, as the NPT developed, people were genuinely beginning to realize that nuclear weapons had all sorts of potential bad effects, including destroying civilization as we know it.
Additionally, after the first half of the twentieth century, the incessant wars of Europe ended. This had little to do with nuclear threats and more to do with Europe’s exhaustion and recognition that those wars could not continue. I’ve been reading a lot of history of the early twentieth century recently, and it seems to me that the end of the monarchies in Europe and their replacement with more democratic forms of government damped down the often personal character of the causes of war, that governmental decisions on war are now fundamentally different than those of the first half of the twentieth century.
Civil wars flared up in former colonies of the European nations, but the United States and the Soviet Union took charge of those both to make ideological points and to keep them from spreading.
Those actions by the two superpowers may have been a part of nuclear deterrence or a part of a prudent strategy for maintaining influence in the developing world. If it was part of nuclear deterrence, proxy wars kept the two from having to face each other directly, confining the conflict so that it would not escalate to nuclear. But supporting the winners of civil wars helped to spread the ideology and demonstrate its success. Neither motive can be excluded.
The fact that so few countries decided to build nuclear weapons is due to many factors. The superpowers extended their nuclear umbrellas to their allies and satellites, as much to discourage their independent nuclear development as to consolidate their power and deter their opponent. Other kinds of military force lent persuasion. Both sides had advocates of nuclear forces alone, but that argument never won out. The nuclear part of deterrence can’t really be separated from conventional military might. The smaller countries recognized that they would never be peer competitors.
The NPT helped as well, guaranteeing civilian nuclear power to those countries if they would forego nuclear weapons. This was important because, up until the NPT, civilian nuclear power had followed the development of nuclear weapons.
Once it became clear that there would be no winners in a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, motivations toward the use of nuclear weapons seem to have decreased significantly. This might be considered nuclear deterrence, but it is a special case: an exchange of large numbers of nuclear explosions between two players. And that was the most likely scenario throughout the Cold War.
Today’s primary concerns are single nuclear weapons detonated by terrorists or outlier nations and a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. So far, nuclear deterrence seems to be working between Pakistan and India, or perhaps it is other factors like the more general undesirability of war between neighbors, a lesson from Europe. Certainly there have been times in that relationship where the deterrence factor seemed to be wearing thin.
I believe that it is extremely unlikely that terrorist groups will ever have a detonable nuclear weapon. It’s a scenario worth considering, but not spending large amounts of resources on. Terrorists, of course, are not deterrable in the nuclear deterrence sense, but there are other ways of discouraging them. This is one of the areas in which the idea of nuclear deterrence has so overwhelmed strategic thinking that thinking about deterrence suited to this threat has lagged. Or perhaps one can argue, in that circular way, that nuclear deterrence works on terrorists. After all, there haven’t been any terror attacks with nuclear weapons, just as no nuclear weapons have been detonated in war.
As the two sides in the Cold War developed their nuclear strategies, Soviet Premier Khrushchev was willing to approach a provocation to the use of nuclear weapons in 1962, by stationing some in Cuba in response to American weapons in Turkey. After this approach to the brink, leaders on both sides seem to have truly internalized the danger of playing games with nuclear weapons. This could be considered nuclear deterrence; we can hope that the leaders of India and Pakistan have taken note.
Leonid Brezhnev was much less volatile than Khrushchev and led the Soviet Union for almost twenty years – from 1964 to 1982. He was followed by short-termers Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, both of whom were in bad health, and then Mikhail Gorbachev, who changed the superpower game. American presidents during that time were Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. Both countries were dealing with serious internal problems, including civil rights in America and economic difficulties in both countries that made wars of any kind, except for the smallest, unattractive. America got entangled in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, neither of which called for nuclear weapons and both of which were accompanied by serious division at home. Along the way, America and the Soviet Union began to talk to each other about getting those nuclear numbers under control.
There are many reasons not to have used nuclear weapons over the past half-century: lack of wars between major powers, and dealing with internal difficulties in many countries, and, of course, the immense destructiveness of those weapons. The wars that did take place were much smaller than World War II.
So was it deterrence? Or a preference against war? In the wars that were fought, why would escalating to nuclear have been a good idea? There was that overarching standoff, which had a strong nuclear aspect, but even that standoff contained other elements that argued against war.
The Cold War was a very different time from today. “Nuclear deterrence” was part of its mental currency. But it’s been applied far too widely, and it’s probably led to the idea that all foreign policy problems can be solved by application of military force.