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The deterrence myth: The naked emperor who’s still in power via Beyond Nuclear International

By David Barash

In his classic The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (1989), Lawrence Freedman, the dean of British military historians and strategists, concluded: ‘The Emperor Deterrence may have no clothes, but he is still Emperor.’ Despite his nakedness, this emperor continues to strut about, receiving deference he doesn’t deserve, while endangering the entire world. Nuclear deterrence is an idea that became a potentially lethal ideology, one that remains influential despite having been increasingly discredited.

After the United States’ nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, war changed. Until then, the overriding purpose of military forces had ostensibly been to win wars. But according to the influential US strategist Bernard Brodie writing in 1978: ‘From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.’ Thus, nuclear deterrence was born, a seemingly rational arrangement by which peace and stability were to arise by the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD, appropriately enough). Winston Churchill described it in 1955 with characteristic vigour: ‘Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.’ Importantly, deterrence became not only a purported strategy, but the very grounds on which governments justified nuclear weapons themselves. Every government that now possesses nuclear weapons claims that they deter attacks by their threat of catastrophic retaliation.


Deterrence, in short, does not deter. The pattern is deep and geographically widespread. Nuclear-armed France couldn’t prevail over the non-nuclear Algerian National Liberation Front. The US nuclear arsenal didn’t inhibit North Korea from seizing a US intelligence-gathering vessel, the USS Pueblo, in 1968. Even today, this boat remains in North Korean hands. US nukes didn’t enable China to get Vietnam to end its invasion of Cambodia in 1979. Nor did US nuclear weapons stop Iranian Revolutionary Guards from capturing US diplomats and holding them hostage (1979-81), just as fear of US nuclear weapons didn’t empower the US and its allies to force Iraq to retreat from Kuwait without a fight in 1990.


First, deterrence via nuclear weapons lacks credibility. A police officer armed with a backpack nuclear weapon would be unlikely to deter a robber: ‘Stop in the name of the law, or I’ll blow us all up!’ […]

Second, deterrence requires that each side’s arsenal remains invulnerable to attack, or at least that such an attack would be prevented insofar as a potential victim retained a ‘second-strike’ retaliatory capability, sufficient to prevent such an attack in the first place. […]

Third, deterrence theory assumes optimal rationality on the part of decision-makers. It presumes that those with their fingers on the nuclear triggers are rational actors who will also remain calm and cognitively unimpaired under extremely stressful conditions. […]

In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941), Rebecca West noted that: ‘Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our 90s and die in peace …’ It requires no arcane wisdom to know that people often act out of misperceptions, anger, despair, insanity, stubbornness, revenge, pride and/or dogmatic conviction. Moreover, in certain situations – as when either side is convinced that war is inevitable, or when the pressures to avoid losing face are especially intense – an irrational act, including a lethal one, can appear appropriate, even unavoidable. […]

Finally, there is just no way for civilian or military leaders to know when their country has accumulated enough nuclear firepower to satisfy the requirement of having an ‘effective deterrent’. […]

In addition, ethical deterrence is an oxymoron. Theologians know that a nuclear war could never meet so-called ‘just war’ criteria. In 1966, the Second Vatican Council concluded: ‘Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their populations is a crime against God and man itself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.’ […]

In The Just War (1968), the Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey asked his readers to imagine that traffic accidents in a particular city had suddenly been reduced to zero, after which it was found that everyone had been required to strap a newborn infant to the bumper of every car.[…]

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