Does Deterrence Really Deter?

Calling nuclear deterrence by that name was a stroke of marketing genius for selling it to the public. Unfortunately, that stroke of genius was also a potential death sentence for us all by hiding another, more ominous aspect of this strategy.

To deter someone is “to discourage him from doing something, typically by instilling doubt or fear of the consequences.” Hence deterrence implies that it will work, that it will deter adversaries from calling our nuclear bluff.

To date, it has worked somewhat as advertised, though far from perfectly. If nuclear deterrence really worked, would the US have risked Soviet ire by deploying nuclear armed missiles in Turkey in 1961? And would Khrushchev have risked American ire by placing similar missiles in Cuba the next year? More recently, would the US have planned an Eastern European missile defense system that raised Russian ire, including a threat to respond by basing nuclear-armed bombers in Cuba?

To see deterrence for what it really is, it helps to go back to the early days of the nuclear era. Henry Kissinger’s 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy noted that:

Deterrence is greatest when military strength is coupled with the willingness to employ it. It is achieved when one side’s readiness to run risks in relation to the other is high; it is least effective when the willingness to run risks is low, however powerful the military capability.

I agree with Kissinger, but wish he also had stated the obvious conclusion: To have any hope of being effective, nuclear deterrence must be conducted with a high tolerance for risk, namely that it might fail and destroy civilization. Deterrence is only an appropriate name for this strategy early in the process, after which it can suddenly be tranformed into nuclear chicken and then into nuclear Armageddon.

All of which leads to two critical questions: Balancing its risks and rewards, is nuclear deterrence a net positive or a net negative for our security? And, if it detracts from our security, why do we cling to it instead of seeking alternative strategies?


1. My thanks to the Arms Control Wonk blog for its post yesterday which included the above Kissinger quote.

2. My web site is dedicated to bringing objectivity to the assessment of nuclear deterrence’s risks and rewards.

3. One of my posts last September, makes a related point.

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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2 Responses to Does Deterrence Really Deter?

  1. FSB says:

    One point is that you don’t need a lot of nukes to buy the same amount of deterrence. Even if we agree to the proposition that “deterrence works” it can do so with 10 nukes, just as well as it does with 1,000.

    One subtle way in which I do think it works is that it “pre-diffuses” the bluster and threats and silly moves by nations, and may lead to some regional restraint. e.g. if Iran had the bomb would Israel have reacted more calmly to the Gaza flottila? Probably.

    But of course one can speak softly and carry just one big stick — one does not need 1,000 big sticks.

  2. Russ Wellen says:

    “To have any hope of being effective, nuclear deterrence must be conducted with a high tolerance for risk, namely that it might fail and destroy civilization.” Hard to understand how policymakers can gloss over deterrence’s dark side.

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