Does Nuclear Deterrence Deter?

A few years ago, my wife pointed out that whoever coined the term nuclear deterrence was a marketing genius: it implies that threatening to destroy the world will deter behavior we don’t like. But what happens if nuclear deterrence morphs into nuclear chicken, with neither side willing to back down and be humiliated? Two articles I came across today help illuminate how that could happen.

Today’s New York Times has an article about the ongoing Sino-Japanese dispute over a few uninhabited island known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. The article noted:

The diplomatic maneuvering underscores the emotions in both nations. In China, the islands are seen as the last unreturned piece of Chinese territory seized during the building of Japan’s empire more than a century ago, and thus a sign that Japan remains unrepentant. To many Japanese, the islands have become emblematic of the broader challenge that their nation, long Asia’s strongest power, faces from the emergence of an increasingly powerful China seemingly bent on settling old scores.

Where territorial disputes are concerned, even a few small, uninhabited islands can cause rationality to evaporate, and an irrational adversary is unlikely to be deterred. If Japan is irrational enough to get into a war with China, we would be dragged in by our mutual security treaty which Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell clearly stated extends to these disputed islands.

Paradoxically, nuclear deterrence depends on our adversary being rational enough to be deterred, while we must appear irrational enough to risk our existence as a nation. The second part of that paradox was clearly enunciated in a 1995 USSTRATCOMM white paper, “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence”:

Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the US may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially “out of control” can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries. [emphasis added]

The second article today which relates to a potential failure of nuclear deterrence is Ward Wilson’s guest post on the Arms Control Wonk blog, which explains how President Kennedy failed to be deterred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ward’s column is related to his new book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, which I highly recommend. When I got my copy of the book, I wasn’t sure how much time I’d be able to give it. After all, this is my primary area of academic interest and I’ve read extensively on the issues treated here. But I found myself drawn in to the point that I finished the book the same day it arrived! That hasn’t happened in a long time, and is a tribute to both Ward’s masterful writing style and his concise arguments. Buy it, you’ll like it!

And, most importantly, let’s start recognizing that nuclear chicken (i.e., nuclear deterrence) is not a rational basis for our national security.

Martin Hellman

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To learn more about the level of nuclear risk, visit my related web site.

For further reading on the Senkakuy-Diaoyu crisis, see these earlier blog posts:

Poking the Russian Bear and Baiting the Chinese Dragon, September 26, 2012

Another Early Warning Sign, September 28, 2012

Are We Encouraging a Japanese Nuclear Weapons Program?, December 17, 2012

Could Japan Drag America into War with China?, January 22, 2013

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 Nuclear Deterrence Deter?

  1. Aaron Tovish says:

    There are only two nuclear deterrence arguments I buy:
    If you nuke me, I’ll nuke you back! (And even that has it limits, see
    If you are about to topple me from power, I’ll make you think twice! (Which also has its limits.)
    Any attempt to ‘extend’ nuclear deterrence (in the general not just the ‘umbrella’ sense) to other unwanted behaviors is immediately suspect. If extended deterrent were effective, there would be no unilateral actions taken by anyone ever, since any unilateral action could be interpreted as an escalation. But as we know full well, there can be different perspectives on what constitutes unilateral action, as well as temptations to test the limits. While cooperative behavior is hopefully becoming increasingly common (little-to-no thanks to nukes), unilateral behavior is still prevalent. And this is why illusions of extended deterrence are so dangerous.
    It will be a great day for the world when the other nuclear armed states follow the example of India and China and adopt no-first-use policies. Then nuclear disarmament will only require agreement that all arsenals be verifiably eliminated.

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