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Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Getting It Wrong

July 16, 2009

Admiral Halsey notified me
He had to have a berth or he couldn’t get to sea.
I had another look and I had a cup of tea and a butter pie.

I always liked that song. A little bit of Beatlesque story telling, presumably floating out of Paul McCartney’s hash pipe. I always assumed if there was an Admiral Halsey, he was simply a character in a pop song, like Father McKenzie or the pretty nurse selling poppies on Penny Lane.

Then I came across his name in the first volume of Larry Wittner’s authoritative history of the nuclear disarmament movement [1], and learned that British Admiral William Halsey had publicly criticized the use of the atomic bomb against Japan a little more than a year after the event, only to be pilloried by the US State Department and Navy Secretary James Forrestal. Bernard Baruch, Wittner tells us, lashed out at Halsey for “putting America in the wrong on moral grounds in the eyes of the world.”

These were people who were determined to build as many bombs as possible, as fast as possible, and to ensure a US nuclear monopoly for as long as possible. Real paragons of morality. A little more than 60 years later, those advocating a nuclear-weapons-free world find themselves vilified by some intellectual heirs of the first bomb enthusiasts—a disgruntled collection of neocons in exile, including the likes of Frank Gaffney, Henry Cooper, and Troy Wade [2]. Unlike 60 years ago, however, one of the main objects of the nuclear priesthood’s ire happens to be the President of the United States.

Calling themselves the New Deterrent Working Group, they have published a white paper that recycles one old and bankrupt argument after another for retaining and modernizing the US nuclear arsenal [3]. I’m about as ardent a recycler as you can find, and even I understand that certain things just need to go into the trash or, like toxic waste, be permanently isolated from the environment. This paper is one of those things.

Unfortunately, the arguments themselves won’t seem to go away and are being marketed afresh by the proponents of a nuclear-armed world (who really are only proponents of a world in which their guys are nuclear-armed and dominant). Instead, they are sprouting up like invasive plants in foreign policy journals, op-ed columns, blogs, and radio and TV talk shows.

The premise behind the entire white paper, which has no basis in logic, international law, morality, or common sense and is offered as an article of faith, is that the goal of a world without nuclear weapons is naïve and unrealistic, and that the Obama administration has its priorities wrong. Instead of embracing the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free world, the US president should be making sure the country has the best possible nuclear weapons, and a lot of them, for as long as the New Deterrent Working Group thinks we need them, which, for all practical purposes, is forever.  What jumps out from this paper, after the migraine goes away, is a slightly more candid objection to what would happen if the newly declared US policy were to become reality: ridding the world of nuclear weapons would…well…deprive the US of its nuclear weapons. That everyone else would consign theirs to oblivion at the same time doesn’t seem to matter.

If that sounds like a logical cul de sac—or even just lame—consider this. President Obama himself has echoed the circular reasoning that for as long as nuclear weapons exist, the US “will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal.” Maybe he feels obliged to say that, but it’s exactly that sense of obligation to the fatally flawed concept of deterrence that all but guarantees the continued existence of nuclear weapons.

The tedious claims that have been repackaged by the New Deterrent Working Group (sounds like a boy band, doesn’t it?) have been thoroughly rebutted and their disinformation corrected so often that the CliffsNotes version is all I’ll give them here. (I highly recommend FAS Strategic Security blog if you want the particulars.) Italic text is my (irreverent but fair) paraphrasing of NDWG arguments.

The Russians can’t be trusted. They cheat and count funny and hide stuff and won’t submit to intrusive inspections any more than we will (wait…scratch that last bit). The Cold War is over; when sensible people say it’s time to set aside Cold War ways of thinking, this is exactly what they’re referring to.

Everyone but us is modernizing their nuclear arsenals. If we don’t catch up, our enemies…uh, former enemies…uh, trading partners who could always become enemies again…will have nice, new, shiny weapons and ours won’t work anymore. Modernization is nothing more than an expression of the belief that nuclear weapons are good for security (and for the profits of weapons contractors), and that newer is better. The goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world will not be served by the US building reliable replacement warheads. A continued Congressional ban on RRW funding, UK cancellation of Trident replacement, a Russian halt to the development of new multiple-warhead missiles, France scrapping its new nuclear submarines and fighter-bombers, and China halting additions to its submarine fleet and intermediate and long-range missile programs would help. Stopping modernization across the board is a crucial step on the path to a nuclear-weapons-free world.

The Senate should refuse to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty because it can’t be verified, would allow the Russians to cheat (see above), and would prevent the US weapons labs from making advances in nuclear weapons technology. While these folks were busily disseminating the wit and wisdom of Richard Perle, the technology of verification has made some advances of its own. Don’t take my word for it; the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) has the facts the NDWG would just as soon ignore. As for the CTBT putting a crimp in plans to design new nuclear weapons…um…that’s kinda the point.

“[C]uts in the American nuclear arsenal do not translate into lessened proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world.” I wanted to quote that one directly, because the exact words are almost better than a sarcastic paraphrase. First of all, the subtext to this rather bizarre assertion is that reddest of all red herrings: the pretense that abolitionists advocate unilateral disarmament by the US. Look at the goal again: a world without nuclear weapons. The non-nuclear-weapon states, in particular those flirting with the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons or actually trying to do so, are not stupid. They know the difference between making reductions on a deliberate and systematic march to zero (which is the obligation of all the nuclear-weapon-state parties to the NPT under Article VI, including the US), and retiring “excess” warheads, sometimes to clear space for new ones.  It’s the double standard that’s driving proliferation, not some perverse calculation that too few US nuclear weapons would necessitate nuclear buildups by friends and would be a weakness to be exploited by adversaries. These guys crack me up.

Not only do we need nuclear weapons to deter attacks against the US, but we also have to make sure we can continue to extend deterrence to our allies. If we withdrew the promise of extended deterrence, our friends might feel compelled to acquire their own nuclear weapons, resulting in an even bigger proliferation problem. The opponents of a nuclear-weapons-free world—at least a world in which their country no longer has nuclear weapons—appear to be betting the farm that this argument will stop the momentum of the nuclear abolition movement before ink is ever put to paper on a new START agreement, however modest. If it kills CTBT ratification in the process—or makes the reliable replacement warhead and missile defenses the price of ratification—all the better. If I were trying to make their case, this is the one I’d go with, too.

Anxieties about extended nuclear deterrence, fueled by North Korea’s reckless and irresponsible nuclear warhead and missile tests, now preoccupy Japan and South Korea, and have become a serious concern for the Obama administration. The irony here is that Pyongyang, which has legitimate concerns for its own security, is mirroring the false claims made by the other nuclear weapons states in order to justify their possession of these instruments of mass murder. This, in turn, is strengthening the arguments of the still small minority who want Japan to acquire its own nuclear arsenal, as well as those mainstream voices in both Japan and South Korea calling for more explicit assurances about extended deterrence from the US, even at the expense of progress toward a nuclear-weapons-free world.

Any country that accepts and relies upon a proxy nuclear arsenal, however, is making a Faustian bargain. For nothing more than a vague promise that its “protector state” will retaliate upon millions of innocent people on its behalf, a country such as Japan or South Korea makes itself a target of nuclear weapons, turns its own fate over to someone else, and forfeits its moral stature as a non-nuclear-weapon state. Extended nuclear deterrence—and nuclear deterrence in any form—is an unsustainable strategy that needs to be rejected.

For all its 60 pages of shameless nonsense, the NDWG white paper has one very uplifting theme. The authors are openly resigned to the fact that their recommendations will be dismissed out of hand by the Obama administration. “President Obama,” they mourn, “seems determined instead to pursue an arms control agenda shaped by his embrace of the ‘Global Zero’ vision of a ‘world without nuclear weapons.’”

Maybe the boy band got that one thing right. I sure hope so.

1. Wittner, Lawrence S. The Struggle Against the Bomb. Volume 1: One World or None: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement Through 1953. Stanford University Press. 1995. Read it. Then read volumes 2 and 3.

2. Three of nine listed authors. Gaffney, an acting assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and a protégé of Richard Perle, is a familiar and annoying face to anyone who ever had a disparaging word to say about nuclear weapons; Cooper is the Chair of High Frontier and one of the high priests of the missile defense religion; Wade is a former director of defense programs at the Department of Energy who helped defeat ratification of the CTBT in 1999.

3. New Deterrent Working Group. U.S. Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Getting it Right. Washington, DC: Center for Security Policy Press. July 2009.

  1. Cindy permalink
    April 29, 2011 9:33 am

    I greatly fear that people have lost the perspective of what a thermo-nuclear device is and does. Dimmed through images of atmospheric tests done in the 50’s and 60’s – the insanity and the horror diminished through time. Although I have not watched the lobotomy box (television) in >15 years – I understand that there is now a naive program on about a post event world – occurring after a “limited” strike. This is foolish and dangerous in the extreme, as it provides a gullible public a very distorted view. I know what I’m talking about ladies and gentlemen, I was a wet behind the ears engineer, blinded by science, and filled with distortions about the “big Red bear” …. I worked at the Nevada Test Site, tested, and ensured the viability of the accursed devices. Make no mistake the threat was real – but MAD was self inflicted – fear, mis-understanding, and distortions by both countries, brought us to the brink – within less than 24 hours, during the dark days of the Cuban missile crisis…. No tests have been done for many years, even the sub-surface one’s that I took part in – let alone the atmospherics (thank God!!) and so our naive, intentionally dumbed-down populace has no point of reference, they swallow the visual lies, as they don’t know any better. The closest to a point of reference depicting the actual effects and after effects of a “limited” exchange are found not in the watered down absurdity of programs like “Jericho” but rather in the stark reality of a film that was done years ago in the UK, called “Threads” . Google on it, find it and watch it. I believe it was Einstein who said that if WW III were fought with nuclear weapons, WW IV would be fought with clubs and rocks, WW V, fought with bows and arrows…

  2. Lyle Brecht permalink
    September 20, 2009 8:35 pm

    Yes. What if the assumption that nuclear weapons themselves provide good value for deterrence in the world of the 21st Century was wrong?

    What if this foundational assumption, taken for granted by those schooled in Cold War gamesmanship is flawed?

    What if nuclear weapons, irrespective of their numbers and all the detailed assessments that go into the Nuclear Posture Review provide little deterrence at a staggeringly high cost?

    If that is the case, would nuclear powers still wish to hold on to a supply nuclear weapons for old times sake? Or build or acquire new nukes?

    Would the carefully calculated numbers of nuclear weapons required for deterrence resemble Medieval theological discussions of the number of angels that can dance on the end of a pin at best, or at worst, how we might rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic just prior to the ship hitting the iceberg?

    Updated discussion for Rethinking Nuclear Deterrence at:

  3. kittyreporter permalink
    September 20, 2009 8:15 pm

    Yes, nuclear deterrence is outdated, outmoded and wrong for this century or any century. It only encourages other countries like Iran and North Korea to try and join the nuclear club. Isn’t it time for the U.S. to finally fully implement the NPT and work towards total abolition of nuclear weapons with other nuclear and non-nuclear countries?

    Yes, it is time to work for abolition of nuclear weapons. As Joseph Rotblat once said, it is the only sane alternative for all humanity to keep us safe.

  4. Lyle Brecht permalink
    August 24, 2009 4:29 pm

    Thanks for your suggestions regarding ‘extended deterrence.’ There are a number of sub-games (strategies) that are presently being used to rationalize playing the deterrence game, and extended deterrence (the nuclear umbrella that protects my currently non-nuclear country) is one of them. However, if the game itself is rigged to fail (i.e. is unwinnable), does it matter if I am playing a sub-version of the game? My first assertion is that Deterrence Doctrine, at its foundation that depends on nuclear weapons to ‘deter’ First Use, was predicated on achieving a Nash Equilibrium in a two-player game. These conditions no longer define the decision space. Humans invented this game to forestall First Use. The game is obsolete, although, for a number of reasons, no-one appears to notice. A situation of the Emperor has no clothes. Thus, my second assertion: if humans invented this game in the first place, and this game is obsolete and more dangerous (and expensive) than ever to play, let’s allocate sufficient capital to invent a new, less dangerous game to play. I believe this is possible. I assert that it is needed if we aspire to economic recovery and sustainable economic growth.

  5. August 24, 2009 4:09 pm


    Thanks for the comment and the link to your paper, which is an impressive piece of reasoning, to say the least. Anyone who cites Italo Calvino in a footnote already has my attention. :=) You’ve touched on all the salient failures of deterrence doctrine except one: as I’ve pointed out, the whole notion of extended deterrence — the so-called nuclear umbrella that nuclear-weapon states offer to their non-nuclear friends and allies — not only attracts supporters for the doctrine as a whole, but is obstructing efforts to rid the world of these weapons. Some Japanese leaders, for example, are worrying publicly that if the US and Russia agree to strategic reductions down to, say, hundreds rather than thousands of warheads, Japan might feel compelled to acquire its own nuclear arsenal. The neo-conservative fringe is taking this one step further and suggesting that serious disarmament measures — such as very substantial START reductions — could actually promote proliferation. It’s twisted logic, but it has an audience. If the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review emphasizes the role of extended deterrence (and deterrence in general) in order to protect its right flank, the goal of abolition could be set back for a very long time. To the extent that your paper and others like it can counter the false claims on which deterrence doctrine is based, it will make a very important contribution to the debate. Many thanks.


  6. Lyle Brecht permalink
    August 20, 2009 7:15 am

    The U.S. is at a crossroads. For more than fifty years it has engaged a Deterrence Doctrine based on the strategic game of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) developed in the early 1950’s. MAD, in both its strong and weak forms, relies on producing deterrence of the First Use of nuclear weapons through the promise of a devastating counterattack with nuclear weapons. However, after fifty years of collected data, it is apparent that this game strategy is unwinnable. Only a failure of leadership and lack of vision propels us to continue playing this unwinnable game. Some of my thinking on this topic is at:

  7. July 18, 2009 9:15 am

    Dear On the Fence,

    Fair enough, and thanks for being civil about it. I write different pieces with different audiences in mind, and this time I was trying to give voice to the collective nausea abolitionists feel when these very dangerous and (from our perspective) disingenuous ideas start to surface again. I also tend to react with outrage and sarcasm when people who have convinced themselves that nuclear weapons provide security call those of us who want to get rid of them naive. In my view, the truly naive position is to assert that nuclear weapons can be used as strategic tools to achieve national goals, that such a policy can be maintained over the long term as long as the weapons are only in the hands of “responsible” owners, and that ownership by “irresponsible” people can be prevented, by force if necessary. Even putting aside the problems with the definition of “responsible,” a single mistake or miscalculation would result in the deaths of millions of people outright, and would likely escalate into the deaths of tens or even hundreds of millions before the situation could be brought back under control, if it could. To turn a phrase from an old Clint Eastwood movie (and to tread out onto thin ice with you again), I’m not feeling that lucky.

    I’ll continue to voice my opinions on this blog, knowing that I won’t always make the kind of connection that I want with everyone. Sorry I didn’t connect with you. Like I indicated in the piece, I make an effort not to misrepresent opposing arguments even when I don’t respect them (and when they are offered honestly and constructively I do respect them). But I don’t want to offend anyone who is really trying to sort through these complex and difficult issues, either. So thanks for the feedback. I’ll keep it in mind. And if it turns out that my writing just isn’t your cup of tea, I hope you’ll find other contributors to this blog who’ll do a better job of helping you make up your own mind.


  8. On the Fence permalink
    July 17, 2009 5:19 pm

    As I wade through the writings of proponents and skeptics of nuclear disarmament, I must say that I find polemical pieces like this most unhelpul. Whatever valid points they make get obscured by their distasteful tone.


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