12 July 2021
Countries have understood the importance of nuclear deterrence and it plays an important role in designing their security strategies.
At the brink of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the world narrowly escaped what could have been a nuclear war between the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States (US). Since then, many countries have built up their nuclear arsenals, especially the ones that are at loggerheads with each other, the most obvious ones being Pakistan and India. However, the pertinent question is: Despite officially nine countries having nuclear weapons, why has the world been able to avoid a nuclear war? The answer to this question provided by International Relations theorists is the “logic of nuclear deterrence,” which was propagated by academics such as Thomas Schelling and BD Berkowitzduring the Cold War. However, is this logic still relevant to explain nuclear conflicts in a post-Cold War world order?
It is undisputed that the world scenario has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of bipolarity. As the struggle for power between China and the US intensifies, there is a growing concern about the nuclear weapons that China has and its potential to use those weapons against the US and its regional rival India. Then, there is North Korea that has continuously declined Washington DC’s proposal for denuclearisation and continues to build nuclear weapons. This article argues that despite these rivalries, the world has been able to avoid a nuclear war and the logic of nuclear deterrence should be given some credit for this.
Understanding the logic of nuclear deterrence
The basic principle of this logic is: One actor prevents another from taking some action by raising the latter’s fear of the consequences that will ensue. Hypothetically, if Country A launches a nuclear war against Country B, Country B will be able to inflict enough damage on Country A that it would lead to what theorists call “mutually assured destruction.” Thus, in a nuclear war, both sides will be so badly harmed that it will be impossible to declare one side or the other as the winner. Even if one of them tries to attack and disable the nuclear weapons of its rival, the other would still be left with enough nuclear weapons to inflict unacceptable destruction.
It helps avoid a nuclear war as each side tries to secure their interests by avoiding a nuclear confrontation.
Kenneth Waltz has explained the logic behind nuclear deterrence in a simple yet profound manner: “Although we are defenceless, if you attack we will punish you to an extent that more than cancels your gains.” Thus, it helps avoid a nuclear war as each side tries to secure their interests by avoiding a nuclear confrontation.
The logic of nuclear deterrence in a bipolar world
Even though the USSR had a nuclear stockpile of 40,000 nuclear weaponsand the US had a nuclear stockpile of 30,000 nuclear weapons, they did not engage in a nuclear war. An analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis illustrates that at its peak, a nuclear war between the superpowers almost seemed inevitable. However, the leaders were firm about not engaging in a nuclear war as it would cause destruction to both the superpowers. This is what prompted the US to intercept Soviet warships rather than engage directly and Moscow to passively withdraw. Deterrence led to negotiation between the superpowers as the Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, while the US promised not to invade Cuba and President Kennedy even agreed to remove American missiles from Turkey.
Nevertheless, there are many scholars who have expressed their scepticism about the logic of deterrence by arguing that just because it avoided a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the US, it does not mean it is a “proven fact.” Nuclear strategists have urged leaders to exercise caution when basing their security strategies on this logic. For instance, North Korea threatening to wage a nuclear war against the US has raised doubts in the minds of many advisors and academics.
Nuclear deterrence is based on the assumption that a country will avoid starting a nuclear war in order to protect its own security.
Then there is the question of the credibility of this line of thinking: Should countries base their security strategies on a logic? Many have argued that the logic of nuclear deterrence is not an established norm but a “hypothesis” and, thus, basing a nation’s security strategy on it is a gamble. Nuclear deterrence is based on the assumption that a country will avoid starting a nuclear war in order to protect its own security.
Another major flaw with this logic is the presence of many uncontrollable variables such as the misuse of nuclear weapons if the control falls into the hands of the wrong people or a soldier deliberately starting a nuclear war to create mischief.
Given the strained relations between countries, it may seem that the world is sitting on a ticking time bomb. However, despite this, the logic of nuclear deterrence brings reassurance. First, there is the cost-benefit analysis of a nuclear war. It is a given that nuclear weapons can bring so much destruction that the costs of war will outweigh the benefits and this would “deter” leaders from engaging in nuclear warfare. There is a renewed threat of “second-strike capability” that keeps countries from engaging in nuclear warfare.
Second, leaders who are driven by personal interests are aware of the fact that no winner would emerge from a nuclear war. Given the nuclear threats by Kim Jong-un to the US, it may seem that there is a possibility of North Korean nuclear attacks. However, why has Pyongyang not acted on these threats? The main reason is that Kim Jong-un understands that waging a nuclear war would result in “mutual destruction” and this has restrained him from a nuclear attack.
Despite China, India, and Pakistan having nuclear weapons, the region has been able to avoid a nuclear confrontation.
Another good illustration of this logic at play is South Asia — a volatile region with three nuclear powers who are at loggerheads with each other. Despite China, India, and Pakistan having nuclear weapons, the region has been able to avoid a nuclear confrontation. Pakistan and India became nuclear states in 1998 and have fought one war since then. However, the Kargil War fought in 1999 did not see the use of any nuclear weapons. The Deputy Foreign Minister of Pakistan at the time, Shamshad Ahmed, told a Pakistani newspaper that Pakistan is willing to use “any weapon in our arsenal to defend our territorial integrity.” To this, George Fernandez, India’s then Defence Minister, responded that in doing so they would “liquidate” their own country in the process. This shows how nuclear deterrence plays out when indirect threats are made from either side. On analysing Sino-Indian relations, particularly the Ladakh stand-off of 2020, it is evident that both countries are careful to not use nuclear weapons even as a threat. Both these countries have stated that the role of the weapon is narrowly framed for safeguarding against nuclear blackmail and coercion. Both have declared No First Use (NFU) positions.
Thus, nuclear deterrence is not just a Cold War term but is extremely valid in a post-Cold War scenario. Countries have understood the importance of nuclear deterrence and it plays an important role in designing their security strategies. It is used by countries as a bargaining chip to deter nuclear retaliation by other countries. However, it should be noted that nuclear deterrence is not the only answer to security problems and its application can be enhanced by using other strategies such as peace talks and confidence-building measures. While it is evident that countries have understood the importance of nuclear deterrence, the world faces the threat of nuclear attack by non-state actors as deterrence as a strategy may likely fail in such cases.
The author is a research intern at ORF.The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.