New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


The Future of Nuclear Deterrence


Dr. Ford made the following remarks on March 17, 2011, to a NATO Nuclear Policy Symposium in Tirana, Albania, on “NATO Nuclear Policy After Lisbon – Continuity or Change?”

Good morning.  Let me begin by offering my thanks to the NATO organizers and our gracious Albanian hosts here in Tirana.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to offer a few tentative thoughts about the future of nuclear deterrence.

I.          Deterrence as a Phenomenon

As s a general phenomenon, of course, “deterrence” is alive and well, all around the world.  It raises its head whenever one party adopts a policy that confronts another party with a balance of anticipated costs and benefits that makes it seem unattractive for the second party to undertake something that the first wishes it not to do.

In military affairs, deterrence exists quite ubiquitously.  We see countries attempting to put deterrence to work against the United States, for example, through the development of so-called “anti-access” or “area-denial” strategies that try to make it untenably costly for American forces to intervene in a future regional conflict involving a friend or ally.  Iran seems to have acquired anti-shipping missiles, sea mines, and swarms of fast attack craft in the Persian Gulf in part with such intervention-dissuasive ideas in mind.  Indeed, Tehran carefully publicizes its experiments with things such as the Russian Shkval rocket-powered torpedo – or, more recently, a purportedly “stealthy” anti-ship missile – no doubt partly in hopes of never having to use such weapons.  From Iran’s perspective, the best answer may be not to fight but rather simply to convince the U.S. Navy ahead of time that operating close to Iran is too much trouble.  One probably also sees some deterrent calculations at work in Iran’s provision of scores of thousands of rockets and missiles to Hezbollah.  It has now become a trope of regional security analysis that if Israel or the United States attack Iran’s ongoing nuclear development program, Hezbollah will launch awful barrages from Lebanon into northern Israel.  It is hoped that we will thus be deterred.

Similarly, China does not merely invest in capabilities designed to complicate U.S. operations in the Western Pacific.  It goes to some trouble to draw attention to these capabilities in order encourage in us the idea that the region really is an area that is naturally and inevitably within Beijing’s sphere of special proprietary interest and influence.  If the Western press buzzes about a new “carrier-killing” ballistic missile in the wake of U.S.-South Korean naval exercises – or if photographs of what purports to be a new Chinese “stealth” aircraft appear in the media just as the U.S. Secretary of Defense visits Beijing – one probably sees a deterrence-engendering perception management campaign in full swing.

Such games are perhaps only secondarily military ones.  The principal objective is political and psychological.  They are about enticing a potential adversary to internalize a narrative that you have written, offering persuasive reasons for him to conclude that it isn’t in his interest to do what you do not wish him to do.  This is classic deterrence.  It thrives in military affairs, in law enforcement, in regulatory and administrative affairs, and in innumerable aspects of everyday human life.  Indeed, this is as much a question of basic logic and psychology as simply of contingent history.  Deterrence seems to have been around in some form for as long as there have been human communities, and we should not expect anything to happen to this vibrant and ongoing phenomenon.

II.        Nuclear Deterrence

For our purposes today, therefore, the real question concerns the future of deterrence in its specifically nuclear forms – the nuclear species, as it were, of the genus deterrencia.  This, in turn, means that we must grapple with ongoing debates about the role that nuclear weapons play in modern security affairs.

Discussions of nuclear deterrence, in some quarters, tend to presuppose what the disarmament community often takes as axiomatic, but which is, in fact, a highly questionable claim – namely, that the only use of nuclear weapons is in fact for deterring the use of other nuclear weapons by others.  This is a seductive idea, and this conceptual premise has the added benefit of seeming to offer a kind of “fast-track” to nuclear disarmament.  Through the prism of the “sole purpose” thesis, nuclear weapons are seen as a kind of analytically isolated, self-supporting, and self-justifying edifice – a structure that could be eliminated without significantly affecting any other equities.  If all nuclear weapons do is deter the use of other nuclear weapons, they are self-cancelling in the aggregate, and are really no more use in existence than out of it.  Metaphorically speaking, therefore, because nuclear deterrence is assumed not really to “touch” any of the other structures of our lives, it could simply be lifted up and tossed away, in its entirety, at any time.

This conceptual premise, however, is very problematic.  And if it isn’t the case that nuclear weapons only deter other such weapons, the logic of abolition – and of the transcendence of nuclear deterrence – gets more complicated, and more improbable.  If nuclear weapons turn out to be entangled in various ways with broader security or other issues, concerns, and institutions, it is much harder to imagine them being surgically excised, and nuclear deterrence so cleanly disposed of.  In that event, disarmament is not a challenge of simple “elimination” but rather an ongoing project of constructing new networks of buttresses, beams, supports, and other compensatory or replacement structures to ensure that valuable things do not also come tumbling down if and when nuclear weapons ever go away.  The extent to which that can be done is not clear.

III.       Nuclear Entanglement

And indeed, nuclear weapons and varieties of nuclear deterrence do still seem to be remarkably common.  The specific “nuke-on-nuke” sub-species of “mutual assured destruction” that became so familiar to us during the high Cold War may be a shrinking part of today’s universe, but it is much harder to argue that all forms of nuclear deterrence are waning.  Let me offer a few examples.

A.         Deterring Non-Nuclear Threats

The most obvious form of nuclear deterrence outside the “sole purpose” thesis is also the simplest: deterring non-nuclear threats.  This should be no surprise to anyone who was in NATO before the end of the Cold War, of course, because it was for decades hoped that our nuclear weapons would deter Warsaw Pact aggression in Europe by means of conventional arms.  Before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of Soviet Communism, Warsaw Pact forces were feared by NATO leaders because their generals could command troops and armored vehicles in the field in numbers considerably in excess of our own.  Afraid of a Red blitzkrieg on the Central Front, we made clear that any such conventional assault would be met not just by a conventional response, but in fact by the use of nuclear weaponry.  It was, in other words, NATO’s hope to use nuclear weapons as a sort of “equalizer” in the face of conventional imbalance.

NATO no longer faces that conventional threat, of course, but this should not blind us to the continuing importance of nuclear weapons around the world as a means by which to deter or defeat perceived conventional threats.  Interestingly, in fact, Russia now seems to have picked up where NATO policy left off decades ago.  The Kremlin’s military doctrine today appears to be predicated upon the likelihood of facing foreign adversary forces – whether from China or, less plausibly, NATO – that are more numerous and/or more capable than Russia’s own still somewhat hollow and dysfunctional conventional military.  For this reason, Russian doctrine stresses the early use of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, multiple nuclear weapons possessors have at various points relied upon the assumption that nuclear weaponry is a deterrence-facilitating “equalizer” in the face of conventional imbalance.  India embarked upon its nuclear weapons program after having been subjected to a traumatizing Chinese invasion in 1962, while Pakistan is clearly attached to its nuclear weapons today in part for fear of the large and increasingly well-equipped armed forces India maintains on its border.  Tiny Israel, surrounded by hostile and vastly more populous neighbors, also seems to get deterrent mileage out of the widespread understanding that it also has the capability to respond to a massive conventional attack by unleashing nuclear devastation upon the aggressor.  And indeed, despite the many disapproving things it said about nuclear weaponry and nuclear deterrence in its famous 1996 advisory opinion, even the International Court of Justice refused to foreclose the possibility that using nuclear weapons might be an appropriate response if the very existence of a possessor state hung in the balance.

Today, proliferators also seem inclined to invoke themes of counter-conventional deterrence in trying to justify their nuclear endeavors.  Especially after the withdrawal of the few remaining U.S. nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in 1991, North Korea probably understands itself to face no threat from American nuclear arms.  Nevertheless, in offering excuses for its nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang talks incessantly about what it claims to be an ongoing threat of U.S. and South Korean aggression.  Iran has yet to admit its pursuit of nuclear weaponry, but also frequently beats the drum of needing to deter “extra-regional aggression” as it carefully lays the groundwork for a potential future announcement.  However genuine one might feel any particular claim to be, therefore, the notion that nuclear weapons can play a role in deterring conventional attack seems widely accepted.

It is also worth noting that there seems to remain support for the idea that nuclear weapons can “cross-deter” the use of other types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  In the United States, for example, it was reassuringly declared – as part of arguments in favor of joining the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in the early 1970s – that we should not fear terminating offensive biological warfare (BW) research and development because it would still be possible to use nuclear weapons to deter foreign BW use.  There also seem to have been hints made before both the 1991 and 2003 Iraq campaigns that Saddam Hussein should not take it for granted that we would only respond by conventional means were he to use chemical or biological munitions against our troops.  Even today, the Obama Administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review carefully draws attention to the fact that if faced with a sufficiently serious BW threat we reserve the option of revising our nuclear declaratory policy to permit nuclear use in response to biological attack.  This, of course, is Washington’s disingenuous way of threatening just such nuclear retaliation without technically uttering the words.

The relationship between nuclear and non-nuclear arms is clearly complex.  Indeed, just as nuclear weapons can deter certain uses of conventional arms, so perhaps can conventional capabilities to some extent deter nuclear weapons use.  For years now, it has been official U.S. policy to reduce reliance upon nuclear weapons in part by improving capabilities for precision conventional attack, thereby finding more ways to accomplish with non-nuclear tools some wartime missions that were previously felt to require a nuclear payload.  Since U.S. officials have also said that, for them, nuclear weapons have as their principal purpose deterring other such weapons, this suggests that Washington believes conventional arms can, at least to some extent, deter nuclear ones.

Whether in such technologically sophisticated ways or in cruder ones – such as the way in which America’s willingness to wage conventional war against Saddam Hussein over WMD helped convince Muammar Qaddafi to give up Libya’s nuclear weapons program on the grounds that pursuing them now brought only what Qaddafi called “big trouble” – the potential deterrence-related interplay between nuclear and conventional armaments is capable of going both ways.

B.         Extended Deterrence

And then there is the sub-species of nuclear deterrence called “extended” deterrence – that is, the use of nuclear weapons in the hands of one power to provide security to one of its non-possessing allies.  This is most frequently invoked today with regard to East Asia, on the assumption that their secure position under the so-called American “nuclear umbrella” is part of what has kept Japan and South Korea from using their extensive nuclear knowledge to develop weapons of their own when confronted with various nuclear and other threats, over the years, from the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.  Extended deterrence has also been a fundamental part of NATO’s own history.

Such “extended” nuclear deterrence is a form of indirect deterrence that points, in a sense, in two directions.  First and most obviously, it aims to deter aggression by third parties.  Second, it aims to persuade the non-possessing ally that there is no need for it to develop its own arsenal notwithstanding third-party threats.  Thus, for example, NATO “nuclear sharing” arrangements – by which some American weapons are deployed in Europe but kept carefully in U.S. custody, with the understanding that they may be made available for delivery by non-American NATO assets in time of war – aimed both to deter attacks against NATO and to eliminate perceived incentives for countries such as Germany to develop nuclear weapons.  Extended deterrence can thus be both a bulwark against aggression and a tool of nonproliferation.

NATO’s own recent internal debates over American nuclear deployments in Europe suggest the existence of an additional sub-variety of extended deterrence.  For some NATO governments – principally in countries formerly under Soviet subjugation and which joined the Alliance after the Cold War – these deployments have become part of the political coinage of trans-Atlantic solidarity.  The weapons are, as it were, a graphic illustration of Washington’s continuing commitment to stand by its NATO allies even if the very worst sort of crisis should come to pass.  As NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept put it, they are an “essential political and military link between the European and the North American members of the Alliance.”  Even though the U.S. weapons add little in purely military terms, some governments remain leery of severing that particular link.

One might perhaps call this oblique extended deterrence.  The U.S. weapons may help deter threats not by being in any meaningful way usable military assets themselves, but rather by promoting an impression of Alliance cohesion symbolized by these deployments.  This may have little or nothing to do with the weapons themselves.  Instead, it is about their ability to evoke, in allies and potential adversaries alike, the idea that NATO will remain a strong military partnership even in extremis.  There may be ways to cultivate this impression that do not involve nuclear weaponry, of course, but we should not dismiss such dynamics lightly.

C.        Latent or “Virtual” Nuclear Deterrence

And then there is “latent” or “virtual” nuclear deterrence – a sort of proto-deterrence that partakes of the potency of nuclear weapons not at geographic but at temporal distance.  A country’s potential to build nuclear weapons in the future can itself be a factor in how states relate to each other now, and can sometimes provide its own sort of deterrent value.

As part of its scheme for the international control of nuclear energy, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report of 1946 envisioned that states with internationally-run nuclear facilities on their territory would be deterred from seizing such assets and building their own atomic weapons by the prospect that if they did so, other countries would do likewise.  To some extent, in other words, present deterrence could exist on the basis of future weapons.  In more recent years, a number of scholars have offered variations on this theme, promoting concepts of “weaponless deterrence,” “virtual deterrence,” or “countervailing reconstitution.”  More concretely, it has been official U.S. policy for some years that augmenting the productive capacity of our nuclear infrastructure – that is, its ability to produce nuclear weapons on demand – is allowing us to reduce the non-deployed reserve of weapons we have hitherto kept as a “strategic hedge.”  This is a notion of deterrence with potential nuclear weapons rather than existing ones.

Some hint of such “virtual” deterrence dynamics may also be seen in the way a nuclear proliferator’s weapons potential can affect geopolitics well before the point at which he is known to have produced an actual nuclear weapons.  North Korea obtained considerable benefits during the 1990s by bargaining against – and carefully preserving – the potential of its plutonium-production reactor and reprocessing plant to churn out nuclear weapons material.  Today, Iran’s international diplomatic interlocutors have offered it generous concessions in return merely for halting its move toward nuclear weaponry, albeit to no avail.

The present bargaining value of future weapons is visible in the how carefully the United States seeks to reassure threatened allies that their needs can be met through its own “nuclear umbrella,” and without any need for independent development.  When South Korea gave up its nuclear weapons program in the mid-1970s, for instance, President Park Chung Hee did so on the strength of U.S. assurances that Washington’s commitment to protecting Seoul would not waver.  Immediately after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice rushed to Tokyo to reassure Japanese leaders of the strength of our commitment to stand by Japan.  (Officials in Tokyo thereupon made clear that in light of these reassurances, they saw no need for any Japanese capability.)

These examples suggest that we will probably never entirely transcend “nuclear deterrence.”   As long as knowledge of nuclear physics and fissile materials remain in the world, someone will possess a “virtual nuclear arsenal” capable of being developed into a real arsenal on some calculable timetable.  Even potential nuclear weapons can offer some real deterrent and present bargaining value.  In a world without nuclear weapons, moreover, it would also somehow be necessary to deter a return to weaponization.  Whatever else happens, therefore, some kind of nuclear deterrence seems to be here to stay.

D.        Other Roles?

Before I conclude, let me say a word about the possibility that nuclear weapons may play a role in the world beyond that related directly to the provision of deterrence.

The functional role of nuclear weaponry in international status-hierarchical terms is perhaps visible in Russia’s insistence – both prior to the Moscow Treaty of 2002 and more recently with the “New START” agreement – that whatever the specific terms of its settlements with the United States, these arrangements must be set into codified form as a legally-binding arms control treaty.  There appears to be something about the symbolism and formalities of having a strategic nuclear arms agreement with Washington that speaks powerfully to post-Cold War Russian leaders, forming – in the narratives they tell themselves of themselves – a litmus test of the Kremlin’s continued geopolitical salience.  Without nuclear weapons and the global position they are apparently seen to imply, in other words, Russia seems almost to fear being mistaken for a frigid version of Saudi Arabia: an autocratic economic monoculture with little significance apart from its raw material exports.  And while we’re on the subject of nuclear weapons’ perceived role in imparting status-hierarchical standing, one must not forget the continuing gloire felt to be imparted by the French force de frappe.

Nuclear weapons, I fear, have thus become deeply entangled in international psychopolitics.  And indeed, there exists a fascinating academic literature on the subject, analyzing nuclear weapons in sociological or even semiotic terms, as an anthropologist might likewise study the “cargo cult” of some distant South Sea island.  Through this lens, nuclear weapons can play a role as indicia of international status, or even as elements constitutive thereof.  In an interesting study of nuclear weapon politics in India, in fact, Sankaran Krishna has depicted New Delhi’s nuclear weapons program as being illustrative of a continuing colonial-era tradition of reifying the “science of the spectacular” as a litmus test of national or racial status, as well as an example of how India’s otherwise resolutely anti-imperialist intelligentsia has remained caught in imperial-era cognitive constructs tying their own self-regard to how well they do according to Western standards of scientific accomplishment.

One does not need to accept all the claims of this literature to see that nuclear weapons may well play important signifying and constitutive roles in modern international politics.  For so long as someone retains nuclear weaponry for some reason, there may be others who will feel the desire or need to have it because he does. (The logic of nuclear weapons deterring other nuclear weapons is this strong, at least!) This may mean, however, that transcending deterrence is likely to prove more difficult – and thus be more unlikely – than ever.

IV.       Conclusion

Nuclear weapons are thus entangled with the world around them far more deeply than the “sole purpose” thesis would suggest.  Perhaps it is merely that we are now just starting to wake up to a complexity that has, in some sense, been with us for years.  The late Cold War decades of “mutual assured destruction” theorizing and numerically-focused arms control thinking – followed by two more decades in which nuclear weapons seemed, through that particular strategic-level, bipolar, Russo-American prism, to be becoming ever less useful – may have clouded our analytical eyes, so preoccupying us with these familiar applications that we lost sight of the much more varied and subtle roles nuclear deterrence has been playing all along.

At any rate, I suspect that although its trajectory may not be one that always looks like the stereotypical Cold War forms we are accustomed to seeing, nuclear deterrence will have a long and lively future.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford presently serves as Republican Chief Counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations. From 2008-13, Dr. Ford was a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. Before that, he served as U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude), Oxford University (as a Rhodes Scholar), and Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage Soto Zen Buddhism. He is also a student of Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim in Japanese jujutsu (black belt 2nd Dan) and Hapkido (also 2nd Dan), and served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The author of the books "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010) and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005), as well as co-editor of "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012), Dr. Ford has written dozens of articles and essays in international and national security affairs. For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses here are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of anyone else in the U.S. Government.
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