Deterrence in the 21st Century

In “Nuclear Strategy, 1950-1990: The Search for Meaning, Thomas Nichols discusses the evolution of U.S. nuclear strategy since the beginning of the nuclear age, through 1990. While initially he describes a country unsure of how to wield its new power that defaults to a “Massive Retaliation” strategy, this soon evolves into a much more complex “Flexible Response” strategy with a focus on making escalation a certain inevitability in response to certain aggressions by Russia. After the 1970s, however, both powers had accumulated an effectively equal arsenal, complete with quick response protocols, which led to a situation of “parity.” In such a situation, the key was actual a mutual understanding of each others arsenal and response protocols that allowed for global stability, with a strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as it’s lynchpin. This led to a search on both sides for a way out of such a situation, through research into both missile defense as well as continued build-up of nuclear arsenals. President Bush finally established a U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) that has left us in a more or less stable nuclear position in regards to Russia.

Was the build-up of nuclear weapons and evolvement of nuclear strategy a unique product of post-WWII history though? Nichols notes a number of times the ways in which U.S. leaders saw the Soviets as willing to risk their own people for military victories. How has the bipolar world in which nuclear strategy developed impacted the way we continue to conduct deterrence strategy? Now that nuclear weapons have become somewhat (if very limitedly) more widespread, what new challenges in deterrence do we face? Or does it always boil down to the two powers with overwhelmingly superior arsenals (which continues to be the U.S. and Russia)? I also found Nichols discussion of the protection of allies very interesting. Although an invasion of Europe today by any power is probably not particularly imminent, as a nuclear power what responsibility does the United States have in terms of retaliation against any country that launches nuclear weapons? The instability of many regions today makes a flexible response solution much more complex and difficult to accurately predict. But what role if any does the U.S. owe the world in terms of response and deterrence, in light of its status as both a nuclear power and global leader? — Michelle

18 thoughts on “Deterrence in the 21st Century

  1. Hey Michelle,

    Thanks for kicking this off! I liked the Nichols reading especially the McNamara era in the 1960s when the US, feeling empowered post WWII had to come to realization that MAD really exists.

    While MAD started then and continues to this day I think the landscape of MAD and the deterrence to which it has been attributed has changed dramatically. And this truly effects deterrence strategy. I would like to talk about the nuances of new deterrence as discussed int the Knoff reading. Knoff say we have had four phases of deterrence. First we had initial deterrence brought on by the invention of the Atomic bomb. Simply put, someone would not attack someone who could do damage in response. The second phase was about using deterrence to maximize US strategy in the 50s and 60s. Scholars applied this to game theory and created an initial strategy for the US military based on deterrence. In the 70s we turned to the third phase which was the ability to use statistical models and case study methods to figure out exact scenarios and response tactics. We also begun to think about whether all actors were really “rational” like under game theory. The final phase of deterrence theory has happened in the past few years as we begin to think about asymmetrical warfare under non-state actors. Deterrence only works if there is a reason not to do something. Given this, nuclear weapons might even play a smaller role in the new realities of the world than we initially thought. I challenge your notion of a bi-polar world and think that a multi-polar world is emerging that lends itself to more complications of deterrence. Thought we haven’t discussed it yet I think that cyberwarfare in regards to deterrence is interesting. Attacks are one-off and recoverable so this could be used a soft-power form of deterrence due to smaller accrued costs but as it sends a message, nations might start to use this as a coercive or deterrent factor.

  2. Michelle,

    Thanks for the great post! I think the Nichols reading was a great piece of literature for our class as it not only traced the evolution of U.S. nuclear strategy over the second half of the twentieth century, but also raised many key questions with regards to the power and danger of nuclear weapons on a global scale, many of which you brought up in your post.

    When we analyze the nuclear tensions of the United State and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War and the mid-to-late 20th century, I believe it is hard not to view it as a situation where nuclear strategy and nuclear weapon build up was influenced by World War II. When the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the true dangers of advanced nuclear weaponry were revealed. As such, both the United States and the Soviet Union felt the need to produce and possess substantial nuclear weaponry in an attempt to assert their dominance in the nuclear arms race. However, the knowledge of the destructiveness of these weapons opened the gate for the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, as both sides understood that an open use of nuclear weaponry against each other with undoubtedly lead to both their destructions.

    While nuclear tensions have historically been synonymous to U.S.-Soviet relations, Nichols wisely points out how our world today has seen a more widespread presence of nuclear weapons with other countries coming into the picture. With regards to your question about U.S. responsibility to retaliate against any country that launches nuclear weapons, I have mixed feelings. On one hand, with the United States clearly being the leader of the Western World, I feel it is their responsibility to hold other countries accountable, and if someone were to launch nuclear weapons, it would need to be immediately stopped. However, as we have seen with MAD, nuclear warfare is a slippery slope that almost certainly means utter destruction for the world, and if the United States were to retaliate by firing nuclear weapons of their own, we could quickly find ourselves in a global nuclear war- something nobody wants. Thus, I believe the best practice for the United States is to take further steps as a leader in ensuring the control of nuclear weaponry, and ideally, the gradual destruction of nuclear weapons so that a global nuclear war never breaks out. As a nuclear power and a global leader, I believe if America took these steps, the rest of the world would follow.

  3. With respect to American nuclear strategy, one new major factor maintaining the equilibrium today among nation states (i.e. no one has engaged in nuclear warfare since 1945) emerges. The economic interconnectedness of the world, especially among the P5+1 countries (all of which, except Germany, have nuclear weapons), creates another buttress to the M.A.D. strategy. In other words, if, for instance, Russia found a way to attack the U.S. and incur minimal losses from the reprisal nuclear attack from the U.S., Russia’s economy would most likely collapse with the collapse of the American economy. While this might have been somewhat of an issue during the Cold War, it is certainly a major factor now; by attacking the U.S., Russia (or any other country) would be crippling itself.

    It is also important to note that there still exists from the Cold War era the factor of American willpower, which Nichols expertly identifies: “The much greater complication, with North America itself now vulnerable to Soviet weapons, was not whether the United States could defend itself, but whether the Americans would risk nuclear war for their allies in NATO” (22). I firmly believe that this lies at the heart of nuclear strategy, as well as general military strategy. To have an effective strategy and maintain a credible threat to any potential enemy, the U.S. must make clear the situations in which it would come to the rescue – both with nuclear weapons and/or with conventional military force – of any of its allies. Without this, other countries could abuse the strategy ambiguity and challenge the U.S. and its allies.

  4. Michelle,

    I also found Nichols’ use of history to be strange in this chapter. I think he leaves out a lot of important instances where nuclear weapons were almost used, especially in the 1950s. What were the pros and cons of using nuclear weapons during the Korean War, for example? Just how pervasive was the bipolar world order that was forming following the Second World War during this time? Was a Soviet response the only thing Americans such as General MacArthur had in mind when considering whether or not to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War?

    I feel like the 1950s are an especially important decade to analyze to get a better sense of just where “Massive Retaliation” came from during this period. To understand how Massive Retaliation came about, I think you have to analyze the decisions and mindsets of important individuals like President Eisenhower. Was Eisenhower’s threat of massive retaliation a credible threat, or was it merely a “bluff” (as Evan Thomas’ excellent book Ike’s Bluff explores)?

    I think another dimension that needs to be considered here is how the “nuclear taboo” as an ethical norm both in connection to and separate from deterrence. While deterrence is certainly the focus of the book, I think this concept is an important one to understand in order to get a better picture of what role nuclear weapons play in US and global security. I believe that other social and political movements throughout the rest of the 20th century play a huge role in how the world views nuclear weapons today, and I believe this ethical norm against the use of them deserves more attention.

  5. I agree that the current global landscape has shifted the focus away from the model of mutually assured destruction that formed the basis of U.S. and Russian nuclear policy during the Cold War. While the main pattern of 20th century geopolitics was conflicts between large, powerful states, the West and has increasingly become occupied with curbing the influence of smaller, non-state actors. Clearly, the unwillingness of states to initiate nuclear warfare in conflicts against smaller, diffuse organizations has less to do with mutually assured destruction than with concerns about precedent, ethical issues, creating havoc and power vacuums, etc. It is reassuring that despite the weaker deterrence framework, nuclear weapons have never been used in these asymmetrical situations, even though they would undoubtedly yield many tactical benefits in warfare.

    The mutual defense system is certainly a troubling one, especially as Russia increasingly tests the steadfastness (and consequently, the clear delineations and transparency) of the NATO mutual defense pact. In fact, many have argued that the large NATO umbrella (which contains, it should be noted, many ex-Soviet republics), closely resembles the tangle of alliances in the lead-up to World War I. It is crucial that the West either reaffirms serious commitment to mutual defense for all NATO members in the face of Russia’s actions, or tightens the umbrella, in order to keep their pronouncements about conditions of retaliation credible.

  6. Thanks for kicking off the discussion, Michelle!

    I agree with Max that we are seeing a “multi-polar” world emerging of complicated international relationships. If we really are entering the “final phase” of deterrence in which there is asymmetrical warfare under non-state actors, this begs the question of rational actors. Truly, Mutually Assured Destruction should be a strongly deterring factor for any rational country that does not want to see the world turn to dust through global nuclear war. I worry, though, that we are seeing an increasing number of irrational actors, who do not see an incinerated world as the worst-case-scenario, but perhaps a righteous end for a corrupt and sinful global population. With irrational actors in play, the game theory of Mutually Assured Destruction falters.

    Though not a nuclear weapons situation (yet), we can definitely see parallels to calculating Mutually Assured Destruction risks after Friday’s terror attacks in Paris. Today, France launched airstrikes in Raqqa, Syria, the self-declared capital of the ISIS caliphate. ( Twelve aircraft, including ten fighter jets, were involved and dropped twenty bombs, hitting a command center, a recruitment center, an ammunition storage base, and a training camp. Though France has been part of allied airstrikes in Syria since September, this is its largest and most strategically bold strike, likely no coincidence. It is interesting that Michelle brought up Nichols’ point that U.S. leaders saw the Soviets as willing to risk their own people for military victories. Surely ISIS is expecting military retaliation after their catastrophic attacks in Paris and Beirut, and for a rational actor that may be enough to deter a first strike, but for the terror group the loss of life on their side is an expected side effect. Indeed, it may almost be an added benefit, since attacks from the West so far have prompted increased recruitment and radicalization.

    Michelle also brings up the issues of deterrence through protection of allies. To continue with the example of France, they may now (and are expected to) pursue Article 5 of the NATO charter, which compels all 28 member parties to plan a coordinated response. The last time the article was invoked was after 9/11, and as former NATO allied supreme commander Admiral James Stavridis points out, “…if you put the death level and the injury level on a population-adjusted basis – population of France about one-sixth that of the United States – this really starts to resemble a 9/11 level event.” ( While we can hypothesize all day about possible international responses to the use of nuclear warfare, a similar situation is playing out before us. It will be interesting to see how the world’s powers respond.

  7. Thanks for kicking off this discussion and all of the interesting points brought up! With respect to MAD and nuclear strategy, I’m of mixed opinions, and the historical record is I think relatively ambiguous–after all, it only takes one errant move for carefully calibrated game-theoretic systems to fail, and we have had numerous close calls in the past. In IR theory, MAD tends to rely on 3 main pillars–second strike capability, command and control, and rationality–and in real life none of the three can be always guaranteed (though technological advances in nations such as the US and Russia may help guarantee the first.) A world with more widespread nuclear weapons–possessed by actors with different agendas, strategic logics, and incentives–does seem to change the calculus by which the nuclear game of chess is conducted.

    Still, even if MAD as a framework is historically contingent, I think it still applies to some extent to a logic of deterrence and destruction that applies today. The case of India and Pakistan is an interesting one, insofar as it pushes certain theories and tests their credibility. Since independence, there have been 4 main conflicts between India and Pakistan (and extended conflict over Kashmir), and the Kargil War of 1999 is especially interesting as it occurred after both countries attained nuclear capability. To date, it is the only example of a hot war between nuclear powers and one of few between democracies (though what qualifies as a democracy is questionable), thus weakening our confidence about MAD or democratic peace theories. Yet, the war ended quickly without escalating, a fact that is likely due to the potential for nuclear escalation which neither side intended–and which the US worked assiduously to prevent–and both countries have not fought each other since, in a shift that could ascribed to the perversely stabilizing presence of nuclear weapons. It seems to me, then, that MAD as a framework remains applicable to current political situations even in countries wherein it was not initially conceived or applied. But it is also not infallible and shows signs of fraying, particularly as the three conditions underlying its success weaken. And MAD’s fallibility could prove catastrophic indeed.

  8. Thanks to all for the wonderful posts thus far! I wanted to refer back to Max’s initial comment regarding the smaller role that nuclear weapons could play in the conflicts of today. While MAD worked quite effectively as a strategy during the bi-polar global order of the Cold War, like many posters, I am skeptical of its continued applicability. In a world threatened more by potential regional nuclear arms races and nuclear terrorism rather than global nuclear war, deterrence strategies of the past may be obsolete. The need to get away from deterrence and move towards total elimination of nuclear weapons is a view shared by a variety of Cold War veterans, including Henry Kissinger and George Shultz (The Growing Appeal of Zero, The Economist, 2011).

    This, of course, raises a host of interesting questions with respect to our contemporary approach towards international non-proliferation. Many other posters have already provided well-thought comments on these foreign policy questions. On the flip side, I think the current situation could also spark interesting discussions regarding U.S. domestic approaches to our own nuclear arsenal. While we are certainly reducing the number of weapons and encouraging other countries to follow suit, the U.S. nuclear triad is still in tact and strong.

    Given a world shifting towards small-scale conflict, how should we adjust our strategic nuclear arsenal, and what should be the goal? Should we remove particular legs of the triad, nix the program altogether, or do nothing at all? On what basis should we make these decisions? And should the money saved be shifted towards other areas of national defense?

  9. Great questions, thanks for the post!
    Thomas Nichols provides a brief but thorough summary of US-USSR nuclear relations post-World War Two which allows us to look at factors which shifted the meaning of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence. I do believe that the build up of nuclear arms in the proceeding years of WWII was a direct result of the experiences of the war. The United States was left in a position of emmense power, yet faced threats from an expanding Soviet Union- whose motives they gathered from the previous alliance. With a lack of strong allies on the European continent, it was clear that the Soviets had a superior advantage on the ground. Nichols notes, “Outmanned and outgunned, the West had no hope of protecting every possible corner of the earth from a hemishperic Sino-Soviet alliance.” (19) This prompted the US to look for alternate strategies to deter Soviet influence and when they were the sole possessors of nuclear arms, this was their chance. This allowed for the US to pursue a policy of Massive Retaliation, relying heavily on nuclear arms to halt Soviet expansion across the world. The Soviet response was, of course, a massive build up of its own arms program in an attempt to counter the West’s strategy.
    I think the question on how a bipolar world has continued to impact nuclear deterrence is an interesting one. But I agree with Max when he says the world is a multi-polar one now. With an increase in the amount of nuclear states there is a shift in the power dynamic. It is evident that states such as India will not engage in a nuclear war with the United States or Russia, but what about with Pakistan where religious and territorial tensions are high? How much influence does the United States or Russia have in this region and how does their stockpile deter two countries who will not engage directly with them. I know that international pressure and potential alliances will be influential, but the point is that the world is a much more fragmented power structure, with regional powers becoming much more important. In addition to regional conflicts, the increasingly importance of non-state actors adds another twist into nuclear policy. How does one react to an attack by a non-state actor? Do you retaliate against the population in which these actors live, killing massive amounts of innocent bystanders? The widespread distribution of nuclear weapons around the world generated a shifting power dynamic and places much more emphasis on regional spheres, often times leaving the two major powers (or a bipolar power structure) with a less vivid influence in the area.
    The question on ally retaliation is interesting and Nichols makes a great point in his article when he says, “…extended deterrence was an immense gamble: It rested not on the intuitive understanding of self-defense, but…whether a U.S. president would really risk trading Chicago for Bonn…” (23) The same question is relevant today, would the US be willing to potentially sacrifice its own cities on behalf of an ally? In the bipolar world of the Cold War it made a bit of sense seeing how the West was closely tied together, but with more regional instability in parts of the world where alliances are not so close, what role does the US play? The responsibility comes from prevention, as I don’t see US retaliation as being probable. As a major influence, it is the job of the US to promote the disbanding of arms in regions (or in the world) where nuclear war is most likely to occur. This requires participation from all major state actors. This could be difficult, but since the imminent danger is not on these major factors (such as US and Russia) it is imperative to use this to the advantage of disarmament.

  10. These are some very interesting comments! I would like to talk about Michelle’s question about how MAD might change in a more multipolar nuclear world and how the Cold War shaped deterrence strategy. Throughout the Cold War, the US and Russia were able to figure out the best way to use deterrence strategy to prevent nuclear war. However, these strategies were formed specifically to counter Russia and I think it is important that we question if these strategies are still applicable today, especially against countries that might not yet have the same sized nuclear arsenal as the US does.

    In a previous International Relations class we read an article that discussed the factors that might lead countries to escalate conventional war to include nuclear weapons. The article, a draft of “Conventional War and Escalation” by Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, emphasized that weak countries would have incentives to escalate to nuclear weapons when fighting a much stronger country, especially if their regime or total conquest was threatened or if the enemy is using modern operations that include blocking internal communications. Many of the newer nuclear states are in these weaker positions and some, such as North Korea or China could be said to have some of these factors if they went to war against the United States. With these risks, it seems necessary for the United States to reevaluate how it presents its status as a nuclear country and its nuclear arsenal to the world. If it is too aggressive with MAD it might scare smaller countries into using nuclear weapons against it.

  11. During the Cold War, despite their differences, the United States and the Soviet Union were both rational actors. U.S. nuclear strategy during the Cold War was developed with the understanding that the Soviet Union would be deterred by the risks associated with launching a nuclear attack against the U.S. or one of its allies. In describing “flexible response,” Nichols says that it “relied on presenting the Kremlin with a paradox, in which the success of Warsaw Pact conventional forces on the battlefield would increase the chance that nuclear weapons would be used against them” (Nichols, 26).

    This approach could be successful because, rather than trying to inflict as much destruction as possible, the Soviet Union had to worry about the safety of its own people and the reaction of other countries around the world. According to Nichols, “Moscow acted with considerably more circumspection than its rhetoric might have suggested. In 1981, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev finally referred to the idea of nuclear victory as ‘dangerous madness'” (Nichols, 28).

    In the modern day, however, the U.S. increasingly finds itself battling transnational actors, often acting irrationally. The fear is not that a superpower (like the USSR) will use its vast stockpile of nuclear weapons against us but rather that a weapon will fall into the hands of a terrorist organization. While the USSR was constrained by a concern for the safety of its own people, terrorist organizations often act without any regard for life (either that of their victims or that of their followers). For example, many terrorists engage in suicide bombings. Furthermore, while attacking Israel, Hamas is known to have put its missiles in civilian neighborhoods. Therefore, the same factors that could be used to keep the USSR in check will not work for terrorist organizations.

    Previously, it was very easy to identify and target the enemy. In the Cold War, we knew that the enemy was the Soviet Union, and we could identify specific military targets within their borders for annihilation (Nichols, 24). This is also made more difficult today by the presence of transnational actors because (by their very definition) they transcend national boundaries. If a terrorist organization did launch an attack against a U.S. city, how could we respond in kind? Presumably we could launch an attack against any country that harbored terrorists. However, if the U.S. planned to launch a nuclear strike, the justification for this action would have to be 100% solid; if a government does not launch an attack itself but allows terrorists to reside within its borders, does that justify the U.S. launching a nuclear strike that might kill its civilians?

    In the post Cold War era, questions about nuclear deterrence and proliferation become much more complicated.

  12. What responsibility does the United States have in terms of retaliation against any country that launches nuclear weapons?

    I found this question especially pertinent to class. A lot of what we study centers around very specific scientific aspects of security issues, so it is good to be able to step back and think about why we are studying this material in the big picture. As regards to any policy issue, the United States’ responsibility is dependent upon its strategic objectives. This statement might seem like circular political-jargonesque reasoning. However, many of the current military problems in America are a result of a lack of concrete strategic objectives – take the last couple of wars as an example – even the Gulf War debatably failed to accomplish its original objectives after we left. So, in a sense I think this question implies asking what overarching nuclear policy strategy should the US pursue? With my very limited knowledge I am not in a position to answer this question, but I do think this unveiled assumption shows much of what is wrong about decision-making with regards to this type of military decision-making. We think in terms of having some moral obligation when policy really comes down to our ultimate strategic objectives (which in reality are very rarely dependent upon moral qualms).

  13. The bipolar setting of deterrence theory development has almost certainly contributed to too great a focus on nuclear dyads. Today we think of nuclear threat (beyond nuclear terrorism) in terms of rivalries. The historical rivalry is US-Russia, but we also see examples in the Pakistan-India, China-US, and Iran-Israel dynamics. But this locks us into an idea of retaliating or guarding against only one main enemy, or a block of enemies. Many of the nuclear strategies fail when considering multiple rivals. Let’s assume three powers, A, B, and C. If they are each rivals with each other, does MAD work when one initiates against another. If country A launches a nuclear attack against country B, is country C free to take advantage of the weakened states of both its rivals? Or does country A, anticipating the advantage country C will receive should only country B be the focus of the attack, direct the attack at both B and C. Assuming that country C at that point has taken no aggressive action, what is the deterrent? If it is peaceful, but countries A or B are not, it may still be involved in the exchange between these two powers. With continued possibilities of nuclear proliferation, we need to consider the effect of the rise of multipolar nuclear systems. The prime example of a potential multipolar system is in the Middle East, with a nuclear Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. On the global level, we still have two states with the majority of nuclear weapons, but this may not always be the case.

  14. The United States plays an important role in global nuclear talks as both a nuclear power and global leader. The United States spearheaded Iran nuclear talks between the P5 + 1 in Iran, which could set an important precedent in the context of deterrence strategies and non-proliferation or de-proliferation efforts. I argue that while deterrence is a valuable tool, and has certainly proved effective in various instances, and in particular during the Cold War, achieving a global zero is most potent.

    Deterrence depends on the rationality of the countries and actors involved to make logical choices. Ultimately, there is no basis where one can argue that all nations and actors will make the appropriate choices. Further, deterrence cannot prevent nuclear accidents, which can easily escalate into global conflict. Ultimately, deterrence relies on transparency across nuclear programs and a clear understanding of actor capabilities. Opaque nuclear programs exacerbate nuclear weapons safety problems and lessen the efficacy of deterrence efforts. Covert programs are inherently more dangerous given the tighter compartmentalization of the program. Covert programs are susceptible to less thorough monitoring of safety efforts, lack of public debate and conversation about nuclear issues in such states, and an increased likelihood that military organizational interests will not be challenged. Further the more countries that maintain and retain nuclear weapons technology, the more likely that terrorist groups will be able to able to acquire the technology.

    While deterrence can certainly be an effective tool, and the notion of MAD can create incentives to cooperate, deterrence relies on certain expectations and the rationality of actors, to be 100% effective. The risk for failure is too large.

  15. I concur that the Nichols reading presented an interesting perspective on how current thinking about nuclear issues is pegged on the Cold War strategies and norms of the past. His description and integration of conceptual readiness was additive towards tracking the evolving nuclear strategy timeline. It is interesting to unravel Nichols’ inquiry into what a doctrine and the political meaning behind it should be situated to (in the context of this discussion forum).

    Zooming in on his earlier arguments, I was hoping to explore the mentality of looking at the nuclear situation as a strategy, and as a problem. Inspired by the other readings for this week, the labeling of words proves to draw further speculation about how this bipolar conversation of deterrence exists. Further considering the vocabulary of potential impacts and consequences highlights the sheer conflict and potential subjectivity of the topic (are they efforts for destruction or disturbance)? Further looking at one of the earlier strategies of ultimate superiority, it is fascinating to consider the elements of which still might exist for other competing allies or countries. Nichols unpacks the old idealized strategy of superiority, which to me is important in understanding how policy can be unrelated to potential effects or consequences. He notes that: “no longer would the Americans try to match the USSR man for man and pound for pound. Instead, Washington would try to exploit its nuclear superiority by using it to deter Soviet aggression” (18). Taking this consideration alone is concerning as it detracts from other important factors that hold significant relevance today. As the strategy has indeed become more complicated and hopefully more considerate, it is still important to understand this subtle mentality of achieving superiority; it can offer insight into current strategies over the debate of MAD as fact, not a policy option, and whether that is self-defeating.

    Additionally of interest was the quote: “as soulless or amoral as it might appear, this kind of strategic theorizing served the necessary purpose of allowing ordinary human beings to think about extraordinary situations” (21). Although the Nichols piece was insightful as a historical approach, it was limited in the pursuit of tracking key actors in the debate (beyond the note leaders of the time). As mentioned in earlier posts, the piece was light on its incorporation of important social and political trends of the time, missing a transparent tracking of civilian perspective over time.

  16. I concur with several of the insightful comments already posted to this article, in that I found Nichols’ text a very insightful attempt at explaining deterrence strategy historically. The next question is always, of course, to what extent historical examples can inform decisions to be made in 2015 and beyond; it is extremely important, I think, to realize that deterrence strategy was really conceived of in a bipolar world so polarized that it may in fact have been the most polarized age of modern civilization; the Soviet Union was (arguably) a multi-national institution in that it incorporated various nations of people, organized into semi-autonomous republics. Russia was, of course, the strongest of these republics. It is interesting to contemplate the implications of such an argument – The US and the USSR during the Cold War were truly massively powerful and hostile (to each other) superpowers at the time. The USSR, however, will never happen again; the world may never see the rise of state quite like the Soviet Union ever again, and this extreme form of bipolarity in the world, which gave rise to deterrence strategy and the idea of the need to balance nuclear capability against one other key actor in the international system, will probably never be exactly applicable ever again in the future. So, to what extent is deterrence useful as a concept in our modern, multi-polar world, where rising China and India force us to rethink the global dynamic of power? Furthermore, going back to one of Michelle’s original questions – nuclear capabilities have become much more widespread over time, and the discouragement further proliferation of nuclear weapons is at the top of the agenda of states like US, who simply want to feel secure. However, I think there is something to be said for the equalizing capabilities of nuclear weapons and arsenals of WMD; this, too, disrupts the bipolar model of the world and of bipolar based deterrence theory because the world will never return to that state ever again. Now that people have nuclear weapons, this will only continue to complicate the picture of deterrence and keep us in a multi-polar world.

  17. Nichols’s article and the subsequent discussion on the blog has really been very interesting. Like many of you have alluded to – the MAD nuclear strategy of yesteryear is wholly different dynamic that is not relevant given the multi-polarity and evolution of warfare that our world has seen. Given the recent attacks in Paris and the Middle East (Beirut & Baghdad), one immediately sees that the attacks carried out by ISIS utilize a new form of sophistication that conflates the possibility of a) rogue actors getting a hold of nuclear weapons or b) inadvertent use of such weapons under duress. Deterrence is only effective in the Realism School when both actors act in what we think of as “rational” terms, i.e. like how “perfect markets” work in economics. Unfortunately, as we all know this is not the case and imperfections & irregularities exist. Given the rise of violent extremist ideologies around the world, will deterrence continue to hold? To prevent any form of escalation and given the United States’ previous use of nuclear weapons, I find it to be highly highly unlikely for the United States to ever be the first state of nuclear weapons. However, rogue ideologies and a less thorough understanding of both the effects of nuclear weapons and IR theory may suggest that a rogue actor will not hold deterrence in the same esteem as both we and the Russians do. Given the following, the United States has to show the purported willingness and ability to create a coalition that will scare off any rogue actor with nuclear weapons from carrying out an attack (i.e. MAD) – however, the rogue actor must be isolated, for if battle lines are drawn and multiple actors on both sides have multiple nuclear weapons, nuclear war may become more likely. As Michelle aptly mentioned, the instability in regions today makes a flexible response solution so much more complex and difficult to predict. But the US owes the world education on the destructive effects of nuclear weapons and a commitment to not using them – but ensuring drastic repercussions in a coalition (akin to and stronger than the International Response against Iran) against a rogue actor who may consider using nuclear weapons.

  18. In response to your last question, Michelle, I think that the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a deterrent and the threat of Mutually-Assured Destruction against state actors that attack the United States and its allies, is more important than ever, in a multipolar world. I agree with Evan that, in the current geopolitical environment, that non-state actors presently pose the greatest security threat, and that state-based nuclear strategy does not offer policymakers an effect framework through which to understand this threat and how to respond to it. However, the continued existence of the US nuclear arsenal, and the US security guarantee (the ‘nuclear umbrella’) for allies, helps to maintain stability and effective parity between state actors. I believe that the current focus on the nuclear threat from non-state actors, in part, is not solely the result of the rise of that threat, but also a reduction in concern that state actors pose a nuclear risk to the United States and its allies, itself a direct consequence of U.S. nuclear strategy. In a politically unstable, multipolar world with strong non-state actors, the United States ‘owes the world’ stability in relations between nuclear-armed state actors, which is aided by current U.S. policy. The threat of a U.S. response (deterrence) continues to prevent state actors from considering the use of nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies, to the extent such that most people no longer worry about nuclear exchanges between the U.S. and other powers and instead focus on the threat posed by non-state actors; for that to continue, or to prevent the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in conflict between state actors, the threat of the U.S. arsenal (albeit in a more limited form) must remain.

Leave a Reply