Cold War Thinking and Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century

BASIC’s This Week released on Monday July 29th focuses on the prevailing Cold War mentality that pervades strategic thinking in many of the nuclear armed states. These are the same states that continue to slow progress on global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. With 190 states (if one includes North Korea) signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), we need to get better at identifying and deconstructing the obstacles to progress.

A central obstacle is the concept of nuclear deterrence itself. This traditional strategic theory is a means of dissuading adversaries from taking action by using a threat of reciprocal violence. It is one of the long-established rationales behind the possession of nuclear weapons. One often overlooked result of emphasising nuclear deterrence is that it tends to maintain the status quo, while nuclear threats to force a change are called compellence, a close cousin to deterrence.

Mistrust between states and international actors fuels the desire for deterrence. No matter how many multilateral or bi-lateral treaties countries sign up to, it seems that the confidence building measures involved are insufficient in outweighing the perceived benefits of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, it suits people to trust the concept nuclear deterrence, more than it suits them to trust other states. This is a sobering reality about today’s society; we are putting more faith into aging weapons (which are far past the age of retirement in most countries), more than we are putting faith into other humans.

But we cannot forget that nuclear weapons are managed by people, and in reality, nuclear deterrence only works if leaders make sound choices in crises. The historical record, however, is filled with leaders who got overwhelmed by emotion and who committed inexplicable acts of folly, to the great sorrow of their people. Many leaders are sending mixed messages with their public support of global nuclear disarmament.

Long term reliance on Cold War thinking is a recipe for disaster; it only makes sense if nuclear deterrence is perfect and will be perfect in perpetuity. Since any failure of nuclear deterrence could lead to an appalling nuclear war, you could say that for nuclear deterrence “failure is not an option.”

Ward Wilson, Director of the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons Project, challenges the assumption in history that has led us to believe that nuclear weapons have “worked” as a deterrent all of the time. It is hard to prove or disprove how or if nuclear weapons have influenced states. However, historical evidence does show, for instance, that nuclear weapons actually did not have as great an impact on the Japanese surrendering during World War II (and perhaps had no impact at all). The examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki form our foundation of understanding the role of nuclear weapons, and yet, we may have been misinterpreting them for nearly 70 years.

We have managed to endure the nuclear age up until now with cautious—yet gradual—diplomacy, and the development of alliances across geographical divides. The NPT, through all of its shortcomings, has worked astoundingly in many ways: the global norm of non-proliferation is ingrained in the hearts and minds of people in 97% of the world. However, the trouble lies with the outliers and the nuclear weapon states; they need to initiate a norm of disarmament. The arrangements of formal—and informal—alliances throughout the past 70 years has brought many of the world’s countries closer together in terms of building cooperative security and mutual understanding. However, many of these alliances are built on the foundation of security through nuclear weapons with the goal to deter other states. Unfortunately, this in turn simply deepens the global divide and our attachment to deterrence.

Continued alignment with traditional concepts of deterrence puts us at risk of getting stuck in a nuclear age, bounded by Cold War thinking far into the 21st Century. Continued exchanges between states and alliances–across all geographical borders–on motivations and perceptions, the security benefits of a non-nuclear approach, and new thinking on the role of nuclear weapons will help to mitigate mistrust between states, as well as uncover the place for nuclear weapons (or lack there of) in the future of security doctrine. We need to go beyond complacent management of the nuclear status quo, and work towards real nuclear reduction and disarmament.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard