How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence? Part 1

The logical inconsistency – and danger – of nuclear deterrence should be obvious, but it still forms the foundation of our national security strategy. Yet, once an international crisis has occurred where neither side can back down without losing face, for nuclear deterrence to work:

  • we must be irrational enough for our adversary’s threats not to deter us, yet
  • our adversary must be rational enough that our threats will deter them. 

The problem is the same one faced by two adolescents playing “chicken.” They drive toward one other at high speed, and the loser is the first one who behaves rationally and swerves to avoid a collision.

Martin Hellman

This is part of a series on “How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence?” Here are links to each post: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.

How You Can Help If you agree that society’s complacency concerning nuclear may be unwarranted, please sign our petition asking Congress to authorize a National Academies’ study of that risk, and encourage friends to do the same. My paper, “How Risky is Nuclear Optimism,” provides a brief, but more complete summary of the reasons such a study is needed.

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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4 Responses to How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence? Part 1

  1. Bruce Roth says:

    Marty,
    Computers use only logic; humans use emotions (and sometimes logic). It’s irrational to expect rational behavior from people. I’m looking forward to this series of posts!
    Bruce

  2. Suzanne Pearce says:

    You will be in good company. There is no logic or morality. The only question is who can intimidate whom with this policy which contains an catastrophic contradiction at its core. I look forward to what you discover. As a new reader I thank you in advance.

  3. Russ Wellen says:

    I think I got it: The rational us are supposed to act irrational in hopes the irrational them acts rational. Makes perfect sense!

  4. Nuclear Risk says:

    Thank you all for your comments and encouragement.

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