Just 59 years ago, in October of 1962, the world was on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse. With the United States’ naval ships facing off against Soviet submarines in Cuban waters, the Cold War that began in the aftermath of World War II had reached its most frigid point and a nuclear catastrophe seemed imminent. After 13 days of nail-biting tension, the Cuban Missile Crisis finally concluded when the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote a letter to then U.S. President John F. Kennedy, negotiating a deal that would end the standoff between the two biggest nuclear powers in the world. As the two countries began withdrawing their forces, it became clear that due to their unparalleled capacity for destruction, nuclear weapons had become a lot more than just mere ammunition – they were now the most influential determinants of a nation’s power. It was this critical point in history that sparked the now infamous debate between nuclear deterrence – the potential for nuclear weapons to prevent conflict without actually being used, and nuclear disarmament – the process of reducing or destroying the world’s nuclear stockpile to avoid the possibility of global nuclear catastrophe.
In the years that followed the event that can only be described as humanity’s closest call to annihilation, many scholars and practitioners of international defence policy have commented on both sides of the debate. However, the state of diplomatic relations between the world’s nuclear powers has evolved significantly since the 1960s and so have their nuclear weapons. As a result, it is important to examine the arguments for and against both denuclearization and deterrence in the context of the 21st century to determine whether one of them could define the path to world peace.
The idea of nuclear deterrence combines classical military deterrence theory with the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons. According to deterrence theory, a nation can dissuade an adversary from taking an unfavourable action under the threat of retaliation posed by its military forces. The strategy of deterrence is as old as war itself, which is evidenced by the fact that the famous Chinese strategist Sun Tzu even commented on it in The Art of War: “Therefore the skilful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting…With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete.” However, with the advent of the nuclear age, the theory evolved from a military strategy to a political one, according to which nuclear powers and their allies would rely on the credible threat of mutually assured destruction (or MAD) to encourage one another to at least think twice before acting on their worst instincts.
Proponents of nuclear deterrence – especially the five original nuclear-weapon states of the U.S.A., Russia, China, France, and the U.K. – have argued that because nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, the only way to ensure lasting peace and stability in the world is by following a two-pronged approach of maintaining their existing nuclear arsenal while preventing the further proliferation of nuclear weapons by other states and non-state entities.
However, decades that have passed since the invention of these weapons have been far from peaceful. Despite the threat posed by their nuclear arsenal, the world’s nuclear powers have failed to avoid conventional military conflicts with each other and even with countries that lack any nuclear capabilities. This has led many experts to question the credibility of the theory of nuclear deterrence. The very fact that choosing the nuclear option in a conflict would be just as costly to the attacker as it would be to the attacked makes it all the more unlikely that the option would ever be chosen, which in turn diminishes its capability to deter a conflict in the first place.
At the same time, their inability to prevent wars does not make the presence of nuclear weapons in the world any less threatening, simply because the power to unleash them lies in the hands of a select few individuals. A central assumption of nuclear deterrence theory is that those that possess nuclear weapons are rational actors who would remain calm and collected in times of heightened pressure. Historically, however, humans do not have a great track record for acting rationally, and despite their unique positions, world leaders are after all only human. With the growing support for populist leaders across the globe, it is not entirely wrong to assume that one of them may someday justify an irrational nuclear attack to save face in an international dispute that they would otherwise lose.
These exact fears were reflected in a 2007 article published in the Wall Street Journal that was penned by four veteran Cold-War-era policymakers – Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Shultz, and Sam Nunn – who had previously established themselves as the most prominent advocates for nuclear deterrence. They argued that as more nations have acquired or have indicated their intention to acquire nuclear power, the risks of misjudged or unauthorised nuclear attacks have increased exponentially. Combine this with the emergence of widespread terrorist networks and the fact that some of this nuclear firepower lies in the hands of pariah states like North Korea, and the stage is set for an inevitable global nuclear disaster.
The release of this article strengthened the movement for global denuclearization that began after the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Organisations that advocated for nuclear disarmament sprung up across the world, including the Nuclear Security Project which was founded by the same four U.S. statesmen that authored the famous WSJ piece. As a result, multiple treaties have been signed in the past few decades between the world’s major nuclear powers that have reduced the current size of the global nuclear stockpile to less than 20% of what it was in 1986.
Despite these efforts, there are still many who believe that complete denuclearization is a pipe dream. This is primarily due to the reluctance of the world’s biggest economies to commit to or even engage in discussions about treaties that seek to ban nuclear weapons entirely. The recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that came into effect on 22nd January 2021 was not signed or ratified by any of the world’s nine nuclear powers. In fact, under the Trump administration, the United States even addressed a letter to the signatories of the treaty, urging them to rescind their support for it by claiming that it would be a “strategic error.” The NATO allies have also stated that they are committed to a world free of nuclear weapons while simultaneously clarifying that they will remain a nuclear alliance as long as they live in a world that is not free of nuclear weapons.
However, such paradoxical statements are unacceptable in the current political climate when diplomatic relations between nations practically hang on a thread. Despite the significant reduction in the total number of nuclear weapons since the 1960s, the world is more likely to descend into nuclear war today than it was during those fateful 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a result, deterrence is no longer a viable excuse for the world’s nuclear powers to cling to their missiles. After all, how can nuclear weapons act as the last line of defence for the country if there is no country left to defend?
Sagara Ann Johny is a second-year student at Ashoka University studying Economics, Finance and International Relations.