Skip to content

Deconstructing deterrence from the humanitarian perspective

February 21, 2013

pluto10[In my previous post, I outlined how a focus on the consequences of nuclear weapons at the upcoming conference on this subject in Oslo could reframe the discussion about nuclear abolition. I said I’d next take up a critique of deterrence from the humanitarian perspective. Here’s part two.]

As early as the 1970s, as we now know from historical documents recently declassified and published by the US Department of State [1,2], civilian and military war planners in both the US and Europe were unable to describe a use for tactical nuclear weapons that would not result in catastrophic retaliation and escalation to a strategic nuclear war.

Over the course of several high-level briefings, the minutes of which are among these documents, Henry Kissinger, the author of the Cold War “flexible response” (i.e., nuclear war step-by-step) doctrine, shows his frustration as he is told that “There is no scenario for going to nuclear weapons that makes any sense or that has any realism whatsoever,” and that “All the studies have concluded that there would be no favorable outcome.”

The minutes from a meeting about NATO strategy and force levels on October 28, 1970 portray a group of senior strategists, including Kissinger, tying themselves in logical knots in an effort to make sense out of the non-sensical deployment of nuclear weapons in Europe.

General Ryan [Joint Chiefs of Staff]: I agree—their deterrent value is their main value.

Mr. Kissinger: How can we deter with something that doesn’t make sense?

Mr. Packard [Department of Defense]: Because their use would be so horrible to contemplate.

Mr. Kissinger: If a part of the front should collapse and we should use tactical nuclear weapons could we stop them? I have seen an indication that 1400 nuclear weapons would not necessarily stop an advance.

Mr. Morse [DoD]: No one knows. We have not had enough experience and analysis cannot substitute for experience. This is the great unknown. [3]

Kissinger, whatever his ulterior reason of the moment may have been, actually asked the right question. The problem was he wouldn’t accept the answer. The record of these briefings shows him asking repeatedly for studies, models, criteria, and strategic theories that can make deterrence plausible and inform presidential decision making about rational uses of nuclear “firepower.” Yet even the top military leaders at the time were telling him that the likelihood of Europe (or the US) surviving nuclear “escalation” with the Soviet Union was “a great unknown.” Translation: we can’t deter with something that doesn’t make sense. Participants in these meetings expressed anxiety that European leaders would figure out both that deterrence was an illusion and that the Americans knew it.

In a 1969 memo to then-defense secretary Melvin Laird, Paul Warnke was blunt about the inherent contradictions of deterrence policy. He reported a caution from NATO Ambassador Harlan Cleveland that “we should not raise too many doubts about the usability of tactical nuclear weapons, since this ‘would obviously erode the deterrent.’” [4] Translation: if we let everyone find out we can’t figure out how to use these things and get away with it, they’ll just ignore our threats.

Deterrence sounds so high-minded, as long as you don’t think about it too much. “Our” nuclear weapons prevent others from using “their” nuclear weapons, which is what we all want, so let’s not disturb the balance too much. A little bit of adjustment to the arsenals is fine, of course, as long as we don’t go below the levels needed to deter. Let’s not even use the word “weapons.” Our nuclear “deterrent” sounds so much more positive and reassuring.

If you remove the layers of whitewash, however, “deterrence” means exactly what those 1970s strategists said it meant in their moments of greatest candor: declaring your willingness to kill millions of people indiscriminately and to create nuclear graveyards where cities used to be; having the means at hand to produce that outcome; exposing your own people to the same outcome; and cultivating a well-practiced madhouse look should someone have the temerity to call your bluff. All to prevent, theoretically, the use of the very weapons you have all along threatened to use yourself. The real definition of “deterrence,” in other words, is global blackmail, with the entire world held hostage to a threat of omnicide.

The problems with deterrence from a security perspective and with regard to international humanitarian law ought to be obvious by now. Retired British naval commander Rob Green exposed the fallacies behind deterrence policy as well as anyone three years ago at the 2010 NPT Review and in his book Security Without Nuclear Deterrence. “The belief in nuclear deterrence,” Green told the NPT delegates,” “is based upon the crazy premise that nuclear war can be made less probable by deploying weapons and doctrines that make it more probable.” [5]

Even crazier is the claim heard more frequently these days from the nuclear-weapon states that deterrence is actually consistent with the goals of international humanitarian law, on the untested assumption that it prevents the consequences condemned under that body of law. Nevertheless, the claim is made, and the nuclear-weapon states appear willing to debate this point of law endlessly.

The World Court told us almost 20 years ago what States should do to meet their legal obligations: negotiate a binding nuclear disarmament agreement that rids the world of nuclear weapons. The UN General Assembly adopts resolutions every year calling for the same thing. The nuclear-weapon states have ignored those judgments on their failure to comply with their obligations, and will continue to do so unless the rest of the world musters the political will to demand that they eliminate their capacity to obliterate all of us.

Where is that will to come from?

The tipping point for which Xanthe Hall and other writers on this blog have been looking, could come from putting a real mirror (instead of their preferred funhouse mirror) in front of deterrence advocates. What the nuclear-weapon states would see reflected in that mirror are the smoldering, radioactive ruins of their own cities, destroyed by nuclear weapons for only one reason: because they were willing to use their own nuclear weapons to do the same thing to someone else who had nuclear weapons, and who was willing…

What’s not debatable is what will happen if and when deterrence fails, as someday it must. Having nuclear weapons and threatening to inflict their consequences makes one a target of nuclear weapons and vulnerable to those same consequences, in a circular dance of death with a predetermined final measure. (The same thing is true of those countries that avail themselves of someone else’s nuclear weapons through an extended deterrence agreement. Not only are they willing parties to genocidal threats, but they are also allowing big crosshairs to be placed over their own populations.) That total perversion of the golden rule (do unto others…) is the desanitized meaning of deterrence. And we can live without it. In fact, we can only live without it.

For what was true in 1970 remains true in 2013. We found out what a single nuclear weapon could do with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the 1980s, we learned about the nuclear winter that could have resulted from a US-Soviet war using thousands of weapons (and that could still be caused by existing US and Russian arsenals). What we did not know until a few years ago, but know now, is that even a nuclear war limited to 100 weapons or fewer could cause a global climate disaster and a nuclear famine placing the lives of a billion people at risk. In other words, all of the studies continue to conclude that there would be “no favorable outcome” of any use of nuclear weapons.

This is the message that needs to be communicated clearly in Oslo in a week or so, at both the intergovernmental conference and the Civil Society Forum being organized by ICAN. As IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand has said, what’s needed is “a fundamental change in our thinking about nuclear weapons. We must now recognize that it is not just the arsenals of the nuclear super powers that threaten all humanity.  Even the smaller arsenals of emerging nuclear powers like India and Pakistan pose a global threat.”

Fortunately, we can replace a system that doesn’t work and that is guaranteed to fail catastrophically—deterrence—with a system that will remove the nuclear bull’s-eyes from everyone, all at once—a global treaty to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons. By reframing the way we think and talk about nuclear weapons and their consequences, and by applying a humanitarian analysis to bankrupt policies such as deterrence, we may leave Oslo with a foundation to do just that.


1. Ian Davis. US historical records reveal criminal insanity at heart of NATO ‘Flexible Response’ doctrine. NATO Watch Briefing Paper No. 30. February 13, 2013.

2. US Department Of State. Foreign relations of the United States 1969–1976. Volume XLI. Western Europe; NATO, 1969–1972. Washington: United States Government Printing Office. 2012.

3.  Minutes of a combined senior review group and verification panel meeting.

Washington, October 28, 1970. In [2].

4. Memorandum from the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs (Warnke) to secretary of defense Laird. Washington, January 28, 1969. In [2].

5. Rob Green. Nuclear deterrence. NGO presentation. 2010 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. New York: May 2010.

One Comment
  1. jkmhoffman permalink
    February 22, 2013 10:29 am

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: