Reconsidering Deterrence Stability

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By Michael Krepon: 

What benefits are conferred by nuclear weapons? Do they provide status? Not like in the past. North Korea and Pakistan haven’t gained status by having the Bomb. Instead, they have become more worrisome countries. Do they alleviate security concerns? Possessing nuclear weapons against a similarly-armed foe or against an adversary with stronger conventional capabilities provides a sense of deterrence, dissuasion, and national assurance. To give the Bomb its due, during the Cold War, nuclear weapons helped keep border skirmishes limited between major powers, fostered cautionary behavior in severe crises, and reinforced a natural disinclination to engage in large-scale conventional wars. These were – and remain — significant accomplishments.

But the Bomb always promises more than it delivers. Possessing the Bomb, even in significant numbers, has not deterred limited border clashes between nuclear-armed states, conventional wars with non-nuclear-weapon states, punishing proxy wars and severe crises. The Bomb isn’t stabilizing; it exacerbates security dilemmas and can engender risk taking as well as caution. The Bomb promises advances in security that are quickly undercut by countermeasures taken by wary adversaries.

States that acquire nuclear weapons don’t feel safe without them. They also do not feel safe with them – if they have something to fight about with another nuclear-armed state. Having assured retaliatory capabilities helps, but assurance erodes in an interactive nuclear arms competition. A key threshold for erosion occurs when the contestants move from counter value to counterforce targeting. Increments in counterforce capabilities lead to and decrements in deterrence stability – even under conditions of absurd nuclear overkill.

Strategic and deterrence stability are about political relations, not technical advances. The United States and the Soviet Union never achieved deterrence stability until the Soviet Union was heading toward collapse. Brief periods of détente were interrupted by clashes of interest in far away as well as sensitive places. Constraints on nuclear testing and arms limitation treaties negotiated with great effort were accompanied by modernization programs that lessened mutual security. Deterrence stability between the superpowers was accomplished only when two unorthodox leaders – one whose economy was cratering – threw nuclear orthodoxy out the window and sought to normalize ties.

India and Pakistan will find deterrence stability as elusive as the nuclear superpowers, even though their nuclear competition pales in comparison and they have not yet embraced counterforce targeting for longer-range delivery vehicles. Deterrence stability on the subcontinent, as elsewhere, rests on the prospect of resolving or mutually agreeing to defer issues in dispute and, in Pakistan’s case, regaining a monopoly on the use of violence within and across its borders. In the near term, these prospects are iffy, at best. Deterrence instability is inherent when an interactive nuclear arms competition gets mixed up with religion, inheritance, and regional security issues, not to mention a history of conventional and sub-conventional warfare.

There’s more hope for India and China to work out arrangements of deterrence stability — if their border dispute remains shelved or resolved, and if they manage to avoid venturing into counterforce capabilities. The combination of a quiet, albeit contested border, plus growing trade and investment ties alongside mutual strategic restraint would make for a stabilizing mix. But this won’t be easy.

For more on the contested valuation of nuclear weapons, aspiring wonks can check out a volume of essays, Nuclear Diplomacy and Crisis Management, co-edited by Sean Lynn-Jones, Steve Miller, and Steve Van Evera (MIT Press, 1990). Robert Jervis’s essay argues that nuclear weapons have only limited utility is preventing war:

“It is rational to start a war one does not expect to win… if it is believed that the likely consequences of fighting are even worse. War could also come through inadvertence, loss of control, or irrationality… At best, then, nuclear weapons will keep the nuclear peace; they will not prevent – and indeed, may facilitate – the use of lower levels of violence.”

John Mueller’s essay in this volume – and his provocative book, Atomic Obsession (2010) – argues otherwise, “that nuclear weapons neither crucially define a fundamental stability nor threaten severely to disturb it.” Here’s more from Mueller:

“Escalation is key: what deters is the belief that escalation to something intolerable will occur, not so much what the details of the ultimate unbearable punishment are believed to be.”

“It almost seems … that the two major powers have forgotten how to get into a war… There hasn’t been a true, bone-crunching confrontational crisis for over a quarter-century.”

“Since preparations for major war are essentially irrelevant, they are profoundly foolish.”

This week’s pop quiz: Do Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s actions into eastern Ukraine support Jervis, Mueller, or both?

Michael Krepon is Co-founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on January 14, 2015.

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