Nuclear Deterrence: A Dialogue between Richard Falk and David Krieger

“Opponents of nuclear deterrence need a credible alternative that seems safer, cheaper, and more in accord with the values embedded in Western and other world civilizations, including respect for international law, while at the same time upholding national security as generally understood.”

“Nuclear deterrence is like trying to prevent traffic accidents by putting babies on the bumpers of all cars on the road. The babies would make more visible the risks of an accident and would presumably cause drivers to be more careful. This would not be sufficient, however, to prevent fatalities, because no matter how carefully drivers drive their cars, accidents still happen.”

A Critique of Nuclear Deterrence

Krieger: Nuclear deterrence has put a positive spin on the possession of nuclear weapons. It has allowed policy makers to argue that the weapons are not intended to make—but to prevent—war. Based on nuclear deterrence theory, some analysts have argued that nuclear weapons are actually instruments of peace rather than massive annihilation.

The concept of nuclear deterrence has given the public a false sense of security. It has been used to give the impression that nuclear weapons are protective devices to keep another country’s nuclear weapons from being used against one’s own country. In this sense, nuclear deterrence is a very dangerous concept. It is certainly not a fool-proof defense against nuclear weapons use or nuclear war, but it is considered by much of the public to assure the security of one’s country. When thinking about nuclear deterrence, it is important to keep in mind that it is only a theory of human behavior. It is not proven, and there are many ways in which nuclear deterrence could fail.

Falk: Your criticisms of nuclear deterrence as an unproven instrument that generates both a false sense of security against a nuclear attack and feelings of unconditional dependence on nuclear weapons are well founded. At the same time, criticism of deterrence will never be convincing unless it also addresses the uncertainties that accompany the attempts to get rid of the weaponry through negotiated and verified disarmament. Opponents of nuclear deterrence need a credible alternative that seems safer, cheaper, and more in accord with the values embedded in Western and other world civilizations, including respect for international law, while at the same time upholding national security as generally understood.

A further issue cannot be dismissed. Many trusted security analysts, including independent ones, argue that even if there are risks associated with retaining nuclear weapons and the option to use or threaten to use them, their elimination would greatly increase the risks of major warfare. This perspective credits nuclear weapons with preventing the Cold War from turning into World War III because they induced both Washington and Moscow to be more prudent than rival governments had been in the past and led to the establishment of tools for crisis management to reduce the prospect of the outbreak of unintended warfare, either nuclear or conventional. We need to have responses to these concerns if we want our position and proposals to be taken seriously.

Falk: Deterrence as a general idea is understood to entail discouraging a potential enemy from launching an attack or doing something perceived to be a fundamental threat to the security of the state. Only the extreme hawks, the “Dr. Strangeloves”, in our midst had the moral temerity and strategic hubris to argue in favor of limited or preemptive nuclear war as desirable policy options, but despite some close calls, these crazies, although unnervingly influential, never got to steer the ship of state. The mainstream defense community seemed content with keeping the weaponry as a hedge against supposed Soviet expansionist designs, although within the nuclear weapons establishment.

Krieger: The common understanding of deterrence you mention suggests that there is much room for misunderstanding. You refer to deterrence as “discouraging a potential enemy from launching an attack or doing some- thing perceived to be a fundamental threat to the security of the state.” Since deterrence is a theory about human communications and threat, precision is important if the theory is to work as predicted. But actually, the imprecision regarding the threat of nuclear retaliation is quite stunning, considering that with nuclear deterrence the future of civilization hangs in the balance. It is not at all clear that nucleararmed country A would know with precision what would constitute for country B “a fundamental threat to the security of the state”, or that country B would know what this was for country A. It is this imprecision that makes nuclear deterrence so dangerous over time. Of course, aggressive nuclear policies may be far worse than policies of nuclear deterrence, but nuclear deterrence leaves much room for misinterpretation and miscalculation that could trigger nuclear war.

Falk: I agree with you about this and would mention an additional problem. Nuclear deterrence is usually associated with the idea that in the Nuclear Age a country must possess a retaliatory capability to discourage a surprise attack on it. This might be true for some states possessing nuclear weapons, but it is certainly not accurate if applied to the United States. The role of nuclear deterrence for the United States seems more ambitious and ambiguous. If nuclear deterrence were confined to retaliation, then there would be no reason not to make a formal pledge never to use the weapons first and to encourage nuclear weapon states to join in a No First Use declaration a commitment that the United States has refused to make even in relation to nonnuclear countries.

Beyond Deterrence

Krieger: The United States does have a more ambitious and ambiguous approach to nuclear deterrence than would be required to deter only nuclear attacks. It seeks to manipulate the policies of other countries by this more encompassing approach to nuclear deterrence. In doing so, it creates expanded uncertainties for other states. Some policy makers view greater uncertainty as contributing to a more effective deterrent force, but I would not be so sanguine about increasing the uncertainties in the system. It could lead to unanticipated results, which can be deadly when you are standing at the edge of a nuclear precipice.

Falk: Nuclear deterrence is supposed to be helpful for other diplomatic purposes, including dissuading adversaries by creating uncertainty about whether certain forms of perceived hostile moves might lead to a response with nuclear weaponry. There is a history of “deterrent” threats mounted during the Cold War that had nothing to do with retaliation against an attack: ending the war in Korea (1953), protecting the Taiwan offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu from a Chinese attack (1954-1955, 1958), resolving the Berlin Crisis (1961), avoiding the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba (1962).

There are all these uncertainties as to whether the public argument underpinning nuclear deterrence constitutes full disclosure of the broad spectrum of possible uses of the weaponry. We know this topic is surrounded by great secrecy and that the public in the most democratic of countries is denied information about the actual strategic doctrines controlling the use of the weaponry, In effect, there is no transparency as to the actual scope of nuclear deterrence in the United States or in the eight other nuclear weapon states.

Krieger: The combination of nuclear deterrence, nationalism and secrecy is a dangerous narcotic. It induces policy makers to believe that nuclear weapons make them invincible. It breeds not only nuclear arrogance but a recklessness that makes leaders of nuclear weapon states and the citizenries they serve highly vulnerable.

Falk: I am increasingly inclined to think of deterrence as a rationalization, that is, an excuse for retaining and developing nuclear weaponry that hides rather than discloses the real reasons, rather than as a rationale, that is, an explanation for the persistence of the weaponry. If deterrence were the major part of the story, then it would seem reasonable to expect the United States especially to have initiated disarmament negotiations either during the peaceoriented leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev in the last years of the Soviet Union or certainly in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse in 1991.

But there was no move in this direction. Quite to the contrary, there were reports at the time that Washington was encouraging Boris Yeltsin’s Russia to keep its nuclear arsenal intact and not to embarrass the United States by suggesting a receptivity to nuclear disarmament. In this sense, while acknowledging the significance of deterrence in explaining the public reluctance to part with the weaponry, I believe there are additional reasons that the security establishment, in this country at least, seeks to retain and spends billions to modernize the weaponry.

Krieger: Your observation that deterrence is a rationalization rather than a rationale is compelling, but it begs the question of what the weapons are rationalizing. You mention the billions of dollars involved in modernizing nuclear weaponry. Not just billions but trillions of dollars have been spent on nuclear weapons over the course of the Nuclear Age. I wonder, though, if money alone drives the retention and modernization of nuclear weapons. I suspect there is much more to it, what I might call a “nuclear mind-set” rooted in fear and driven by power.

Falk: No question. I never meant to suggest that resistance to denuclearization was only, or even mainly, a matter of the market dimensions of nuclearism. I have been arguing that nuclear weaponry needs to be understood in relation to the grand strategy of important states, especially for a global state such as the United States. This is another way of talking about fear and power.

Why Does the United States Insist on Nuclear Deterrence?

Falk: I would like to make one further observation that you might find provocative but that follows from the failure of the United States to launch a nuclear disarmament initiative in the 1990s. There is a strange feature of deterrence in the current global setting: The U.S. government is both the most vocal advocate of nuclear deterrence and the country for which nuclear deterrence makes the least sense. Why? First, because it possesses such dominance in conventional weaponry that it would be capable of devastating any country that dared to threaten or attack it with nuclear weapons.

That is, to the extent that the logic of deterrence underpins security, the United States doesn’t really need nuclear weapons, and in relation to the biggest current threat—repetition of 9/11— deterrence is acknowledged to be irrelevant partly because of the lack of a sufficient retaliatory target and the presumed suicidal intent of the attackers.

Unlike the United States, many countries can offset their feared vulnerability to attack by possessing nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Many commentators believe that Iraq in 2003 would not have been attacked if it had then been perceived as actually possessing nuclear weapons or stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons.

Second, in a disarming world, American military superiority would be arguably much more relevant to shaping the outcome of political conflicts than it is in today’s world, where, to some extent, risks of escalation lead the United States to be somewhat, although insufficiently, self-deterring, that is, seeking to avoid situations that might spiral out of control to the extent of crossing the nuclear threshold.

Krieger: I agree with you that nuclear deterrence may be far more effective in the hands of a small and relatively weak country and that Iraq might well not have been attacked by the United States in 2003 had it possessed a small nuclear arsenal. The few nuclear weapons that North Korea has developed provide it with some sense of security against a U.S. attack aimed at regime change. This situation sets up dangerous incentives for nuclear proliferation among smaller countries that fear the possibility of attack by more powerful countries. Understanding this should motivate more powerful states to move away from nuclear deterrence and to embrace nuclear weapons abolition before nuclear weapons continue to spread.

Dietrich Fischer has likened nuclear deterrence to trying to prevent traffic accidents by putting babies on the bumpers of all cars on the road. The babies would make more visible the risks of an accident and would presumably cause drivers to be more careful. This would not be sufficient, however, to prevent fatalities, because no matter how carefully drivers drive their cars, accidents still happen.

Finding Security without Nuclear Deterrence

Falk: Again I would stress that the political critique of deterrence cannot stand on its own but must be associated with an alternative that is safer, cheaper, and not vulnerable to evasion by real or imagined enemies. So far critics have not been able to make this case in a manner that engages public support. At most, if fear is generated by a global crisis, as occurred several times during the Cold War and most intensely, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, then managerial adjustments are made, accompanied by a surge of temporary support for antinuclear activism.

The moral critique of deterrence is unconditional, and if morality guided policy and governmental approaches to security, it would have long ago led to the abandonment of a security function for nuclear weapons, especially if the threat to use them is taken into full account. It should be noted, in passing, that deterrence rests upon the credibility of the threat to use the weapons in retaliation or if provoked. Thus, the political leadership of nuclear weapon states projects the belief that the security of their societies is based on a continuous and unconditional willingness to devastate an adversary with genocidal fury and an absence of wider concerns or any acceptance of responsibility for the radioactive fallout and harm suffered by peoples not even involved in the conflict. This posture contradicts the most fundamental and widely shared ethical commitment of all civilized societies to avoid violence toward those who are innocent.

Krieger: Perhaps you are right that rational debate cannot win the day on this issue, but at the same time it would be foolish to cease to attempt rational arguments to oppose reliance upon a theory as faulty and dangerous as nuclear deterrence. It is said that generals always prepare for the next war in the way they prepared for the last one. That is no longer possible in an all-out war. A country cannot escalate to the use of nuclear weapons without the risk of triggering national suicide and possibly a global holocaust.

In a global nuclear war, there would be no victors, only losers. The U.S. president who recognized this clearly was Ronald Reagan, who concluded, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Drawing upon this conclusion, Reagan continued, speaking of the United States and former Soviet Union, “The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?” If Reagan was able to follow the logic of the situation to the need to abolish the weapons, if Reagan, a staunch Cold Warrior, could understand this logic, it should be clear to everyone who thinks about it.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

  • PROF. RICHARD FALK is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. He is the author or co-author of 20 books and the editor or co-editor of another 20 books, speaker, activist on world affairs, and an appointee to two United Nations positions on the Palestinian territories. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
  • DR. DAVID KRIEGER is the Founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and has served as its President since 1982. Dr. Krieger is Chair of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility, Chair of the Executive Committee of the Middle Powers Initiative, and a Founder and member of the Global Council of Abolition 2000. He is a recipient of many awards for his work, including Global Green’s Millennium Award for International Environmental Leadership. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including five poetry volumes, and hundreds of articles on peace and a world free of nuclear weapons. Dr. Krieger is an attorney and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science.
David Krieger, Richard Falk

About David Krieger, Richard Falk

David Krieger is the Founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and has served as its President since 1982. Dr. Krieger is Chair of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility, Chair of the Executive Committee of the Middle Powers Initiative, and a Founder and member of the Global Council of Abolition 2000. He is a recipient of many awards for his work, including Global Green’s Millennium Award for International Environmental Leadership. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including five poetry volumes, and hundreds of articles on peace and a world free of nuclear weapons. Dr. Krieger is an attorney and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science.

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