Rethinking traditional ideas on nuclear deterrence

In a recent op-ed, four US elder statesmen called for a re-think of traditional ideas on nuclear deterrence. The group, led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, warned that the horizontal proliferation of nuclear technology had undermined the doctrine of ‘mutual assured destruction’.

In a recent op-ed, four US elder statesmen called for a re-think of traditional ideas on nuclear deterrence. The group, led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, warned that the horizontal proliferation of nuclear technology had undermined the doctrine of ‘mutual assured destruction’.


They wrote:

“With the spread of nuclear weapons, technology, materials and know‐how, there is an increasing risk that nuclear weapons will be used. It is not possible to replicate the high‐risk stability that prevailed between the two nuclear superpowers during the Cold War in such an environment.

“The growing number of nations with nuclear arms and differing motives, aims and ambitions poses very high and unpredictable risks and increased instability.”

Acknowledging that the lack of nuclear exchange during the Cold War was a mix of diligence and luck, the ‘Big Four’ set out a series of steps to establish a safer form of deterrence. The steps, based on co-operation and a diminished role for nuclear weapons, are summarised as follows:

• Recognise there is a new spectrum of global security threats, including nuclear terrorism due to the spread of fissile material. Adopt effective strategies to control this material;

• Realise the continued reliance on nuclear weapons as the principal element for deterrence is encouraging, or at least excusing, the spread of such weapons;

• Deeper warhead reductions and changes in nuclear posture between the US and Russia decreases the risk of accidents. Whilst the recent New START agreement is positive, further reductions must be a priority and include tactical nuclear weapons (i.e. warheads on short-range delivery systems, primarily based in Europe);

• Whilst reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence is becoming hazardous and decreasingly effective, some states will hesitate to draw the same conclusions unless regional conflicts are addressed. Efforts must be redoubled to resolve these conflicts.

The thesis turns on the view that the US and Russia, having led the nuclear build up and possessing 95 per cent of the world’s stockpiles, must lead the builddown. This has been accepted by the Obama administration, which recently announced plans to initiate negotiations with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) within the year.

However, this will not be easy.

Russia has an estimated 4,000 TNWs compared to about 500 on the American side, meaning the US cannot offer significant reductions. Also, TNWs are central to Russian military doctrine: they compensate for Russia’s weakness in conventional terms and her limited capacity to produce strategic weapons, comparative to the US.

Nonetheless, the Russians are likely to make some reductions in the coming years. Many Russian TNWs are old, dysfunctional and will not be replaced, such as nuclear warheads in air defence systems. A new treaty may be a way to get something in return.

Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Centre, argues that movement on TNWs is a matter of timing. New START negotiations exhausted the Obama administration and any TNW agreement needs to be part of a wider conversation on conventional and strategic weapons. Blechman argues that a new treaty should be a priority for a second Obama administration, rather than a half-hearted attempt in 2011. In the meantime, he proposes, the two states should conduct exercises and experiments to develop warhead-counting rules and verification methods.

On this blog in January, the CND’s Kate Hudson asked where the UK stands in all of this. One thing the UK has been doing is the mundane work Blechman advocates. For example, the recently concluded UK-Norway initiative was a collaboration between scientists from both countries to practice on-site inspections. Such work is essential to enforceable, multilateral disarmament.

Another thing the UK can do is persuade uncertain European NATO members the nuclear umbrella is not essential to their security. This would help set the scene for future TNW negotiations.

The momentum behind Obama’s nuclear agenda has slowed down. However, when Kissinger, Obama and CND agree that mutually assured destruction does not always work, there is still hope.

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2 Responses to “Rethinking traditional ideas on nuclear deterrence”

  1. Kissinger: ‘Mutual Assured Destruction is obsolete’ (LeftFootForward- March 2011) « Andrew Gibson's Blog

    […] Originally published here-      http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/03/president-obama-henry-kissinger-nuclear-deterrence/ […]

  2. Sadie

    This is tremendous and I hope leads to further intelligent thinking and redefining of war’s destructive effects and uselessness. I must add, it has taken the politicians too long to realise, or, is it to have the courage and ethics to speak out …. that when many countries have Nuclear war capability then it becomes ordinary and not treated with the respect as dangerous and a step that would irrevocably change the world to worse. The use of nuclear power around the world for energy supply has dumbed down people’s respect of the danger of nuclear … which could lead to powers underestimating results. Please let’s continue the lead given by some of rethinking policies and where the bar is when diplomacy and communion fail and war takes over. Realise too that the more states that have Nuclear war capability the more likely it is that rogue states or groups have access for inhuman acts.

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