The myth of stable nuclear deterrence

in Program

Nuclear deterrence was conceptualised in the US even before the Soviet Union produced atomic weapons. Anticipating that the Kremlin would acquire the ‘ultimate’ weapon, brilliant minds devised a strategy to dissuade Moscow from using nuclear weapons in warfare or for leverage.

Thomas Schelling, one of the founding fathers of nuclear strategy, wrote that the essence of deterrence was the threat that left something to chance. Nuclear threats were supposed to prevent bad outcomes. If deterrence failed, there would be worse outcomes.

There were other paradoxes and weaknesses in deterrence theory. Strategy had to be rooted in psychology, but this wasn’t easy because adversaries, by definition, think differently. If a bluff were called, one side would have to back down or both would lose. No one had a credible explanation of escalation control. The ransom notes associated with mutual hostage-taking came with rising price tags because deterrence always needed to be strengthened in response to adversarial moves. Failure to compete might imply a weakening of will.

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Photo credit: Jonathan McIntosh via flickr

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