Does Deterrence Work?

My last post cited research coming out of Air Force think tanks that argued we could reduce our current nuclear arsenal by roughly 95% and still possess a highly credible deterrent. An even more basic question also deserves attention: Does deterrence work?

Deterrence may make us more cautious, but unless it works perfectly forever, it doesn’t work as intended. Given that there have been a number of near misses, nuclear deterrence is like the economic bubble that recently popped and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — a disaster waiting to happen. Hopefully, we will learn to pay more attention to early warning signs before catastrophe strikes one last time.

Martin Hellman
Member National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering, Stanford University

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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9 Responses to Does Deterrence Work?

  1. Relying on deterrence really is a big mistake and cannot be the solution. Believing in stability through nukes is a paradoxal idea, it should be common sense to naturally think of the opposite: That stability can only be achieved if there are no such threats as nuclear weapons. We now have a convention against biological or chemical weapons, but nuclear weapons are still prioritary to those countries who have them and who create by their actions a “nuclear apartheid”. This must be broken down.
    I am member of a german student initiative, a webcast called NPT TV that serves new, self-produced interviews with diplomats and NGO delegates dailyf rom the NPT Review Conference. There are two more days to go, and civil society, NGOs, can make a big difference, if there’s enough of them, we don’t know what the outcome of the conference will be, but we won’t stop here!
    You might be interested in these videos on the topic of nuclear deterrence: – Arjun Makhijani, a scientist who works for the IEER – Eric Danon, the French ambassador, has another point of view on the same topic…

    Enjoy the videos! Please visit our website and help us by sharing the link or embedding the videos on your site!

  2. Relying on nuclear deterrence is the worst idea, that’s true. Believing in stability through nukes is paradoxal, one should think it’s common sense that the opposite is naturally wiser: That stability can only be achieved if there are no such things as nuclear weapons.

    Now we do have a convention against biological weapons and one against chemical ones, but what’s with the nuclear stuff? Still, 40 years after signing the NPT, nuclear weapon states see it as their priority to have and keep their nukes – for so-called stability reasons. This leads to a “nuclear apartheid” that must be broken down.

    There are different videos on NPT TV, a german student-initiated webcast project, which serves new interviews from the 2010 NPT Review Conference daily. Here is, for example, the French ambassador, Eric Dannon, with his view on the topic, a pretty different one from the renowned scientist, Arjun Makhijani, who is working for the IEER.

    Enjoy the videos! Please visit our website and help us by sharing the link or embedding the videos on your site!

  3. postpartisanitalia says:
  4. Nuclear Risk says:

    Judith, Thanks for your comments and your obvious dedication to helping the human race make it through this century and beyond. Martin

    • soaringjoerg says:

      Dear Martin:

      I just see these comments now, looking for something else (I’m Judith’s dad, a biophysicist in Heidelberg and will be off to a conference in Hiroshima tomorrow). Being a glider pilot myself (LS6b) I just wanted to congratulate you on your presentation with the Stemme where you compare high speed low passes with nuclear bombs. Example well taken!

      Jörg Langowski

      • Nuclear Risk says:


        Thank you for your kind words.

        That paper, Soaring, Cryptography, and Nuclear Weapons, grew out of a talk I gave at a soaring safety seminar. Entitled, “What Me Worry?” (after Mad magazine’s cover), I noted that pilots agree that complacency is our worst enemy, but that none of us recognize our complacency until after an accident or incident. I then talk about how we might see that deficiency BEFORE it’s so obvious. I wrote that talk up and have it on my Soaring Safety Page. A European glider pilot Dr. Hans. L. Trautenberg translated it into German, and that version is also linked to from the Soaring Safety page. (He had lost his best friend in a spin accident in the mountains and hoped to spare others.)

        Wishing you safe flying,

  5. I’m impressed, I must say. Seldom do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and interesting, and without a
    doubt, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is something that not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this during my hunt for something relating to this.

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