Skip to content
Commentary | 16 May 2024

The extreme nature of nuclear deterrence

Image of Ward Wilson

Ward Wilson |Executive Director of RealistRevolt, former senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and BASIC

Image of Paul Ingram

Paul Ingram |Research affiliate at the University of Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER)

Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Global Security

The wars in Ukraine, the Middle East, and Africa are raging in the context of rising great power competition on the one hand and, on the other, urgent issues that demand global cooperation, such as climate change and the crises in liberal democracies. Attitudes in Europe appear to have hardened significantly since the disastrous Russian invasion of Ukraine. Fearful of an aggressive Russia and believing that there is a need for a stronger European nuclear deterrent, Poland has been testing the waters to see whether it could host US nuclear weapons, and even recently, non-aligned Finland has also been considering nuclear deployments. Responding to the possibility of a new Trump Presidency and doubt over US commitments to Europe, debate has opened up in Germany over building a nuclear force of its own — a move that would irrevocably blow a hole in the global nonproliferation regime.

Looming over all is the shadow of nuclear conflict and talk of a possible Third World War. Confidence in the stability of nuclear deterrence is hitting a new low, yet states appear to be doubling down on their bets. Many states’ leadership profess a shared faith in nuclear deterrence as a contribution to stability (at least when they or their allies control it), but this is probably because they have no idea of any alternative.

There is no question that nuclear threats are so frightening that they can work in dissuading states from aggression (or joining a war). It is said that Russia has been deterred from attacking NATO members or supply lines into Ukraine, and NATO has been deterred from joining the war with boots on the ground or no-fly zones. But the risk is fearsome, and the deterrent effects can wane over time.

It is an obvious but inconvenient truth that nuclear deterrence demands the signalling and credible readiness to fight a nuclear war. The risk of nuclear war is, therefore, baked into nuclear deterrence. As a result, suggestions to reduce nuclear risk, for example, by issuing no-first-use declarations, consistently run up against objections that they’re not practical or undermine the credible threat at the heart of deterrence. Questions about whether or how often nuclear deterrence may fail catastrophically only serve to strengthen deterrence in the minds of advocates.

One additional core problem is often overlooked. Even when nuclear deterrence works, it leaves a residue of poison behind in international relationships, just as a detonated nuclear weapon leaves a trail of invisible radioactive fallout downwind.

The problem is that threats with nuclear weapons are extreme, by their nature, promising massive and devastating harm. It is very difficult to use nuclear weapons without killing civilians and turning large areas into rubble. This triggers something in human nature. Such catastrophic threats cross a line; they create wariness, mistrust, and avoidance in the person being threatened. If your neighbour threatens to kill you and shoot your children and then burn down your house and strangle your dog, you will find it difficult to coexist with, trust, or work cooperatively with that person forever after. Extreme actions and extreme threats make normal relations problematic going forward.

The consequences arising from the use of nuclear weapons are so extreme that the very threat dehumanises those on the receiving end and brutalises those making the threats. President Putin’s reminders of Russia’s nuclear capabilities in early 2022 were a shock, and appear to be the root cause of resentment many in Europe feel towards him, even in the face of his actual destruction in Ukraine. This is despite the fact that analysts find it challenging to articulate what it was about his exact words that departed from past implied nuclear threats supporting aggressive military action (such as UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon against non-nuclear Iraq in March 2002).

Nuclear deterrence harms cohesion within the international community. Yet the need for cooperation among the nations of the international community has never been more urgent. Rising hostility and confrontation are all but destroying the international community’s capacity to tackle the tremendous common challenges of our time: the weakening fabric of our societies and the rise of populism; responding to climate change; reversing the destruction of our planet’s ecosystems; and managing weapons of mass destruction and the terrifying destructive possibilities arising from disruptive technologies such as AI. Greater collaboration between governments across many activities is essential for our collective survival. Efforts by many states in the international community to isolate Russia have disrupted negotiations in international fora. One example was the 2022 NPT Review Conference, when there was an attempt to get a consensus agreement that all nuclear power facilities in Ukraine should be under the control of Ukrainians (a demand that Russia would clearly veto).

Although the practice of nuclear deterrence is generally thought of within nuclear-armed states as relatively benign – it carries with it often unnoticed adverse effects, diluting the soft power of those states that practice it. Ward Wilson and Paul Ingram

Although the practice of nuclear deterrence is generally thought of within nuclear-armed states as relatively benign – like an invisible shield that protects nations from harm – it carries with it often unnoticed adverse effects, diluting the soft power of those states that practice it. Nuclear-armed states threaten global security and drive arms-racing behaviour and are perenially criticised by other states at every nuclear nonproliferation conference. Evidence that the use of nuclear deterrence may be wearing thin within the majority world is the emergence of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — which now has more than 80 signatories and has entered into force. States parties to the Treaty are engaged in a host of serious activities aimed at re-evaluating and replacing nuclear deterrence as a defining feature of global politics. The very nature of nuclear deterrence – the credible threat to annihilate the other – exacerbates the current high levels of tension and angry antagonism between the three largest nuclear powers: Russia, the United States, and China.

When nuclear weapons first arrived on the scene, they were hailed by those responsible for US nuclear doctrine as tools that could do virtually anything, but over time, a certain amount of reality has sunk in. Some believe a “nuclear taboo” has developed, but perhaps the more plausible explanation for their non-use since 1945 is that they are simply too big and too destructive for fighting wars. Our militaries keep hold of them in the belief that within their integrated deterrence strategies (in which nuclear-armed states propose a broad toolbox of capabilities to uphold deterrence), nuclear weapons have an irreplaceable role. But in a world where there are many ways to deliver strategic deterrence across a wide range of effects, ways that are likely to be more credible than the threat of a nuclear attack, it is time to reverse the slide into a new nuclear arms race and instead let go of the dangerous and doubtful belief that nuclear weapons are essential.

Of course, if other tools for effective strategic deterrence are more effective and credible, states could adopt them unilaterally. But this transformation is more likely if they come around to recognising these realities in tandem together. The N5 (formally misnamed P5) Process meeting of nuclear weapon states has continued to meet at the working level and has been discussing nuclear postures. In August, the Chair will be taken on by the Chinese, who rejuvenated the process when they last chaired five years ago. They are set to invite their fellow Nuclear Weapon States to consider the no-first-use doctrine. Still, perhaps they could also kick off a shared process that questions their received wisdom and explores the fundamental utility of nuclear deterrence itself.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Shutterstock