Nuclear Deterrence in a Multipolar World
Because of the existence of nuclear weapons, the superpower rivalry in the Cold War was either played out in the proxy wars of the Developing World or kept in check by nuclear deterrence.
From an American perspective, this form of deterrence represented a next-step change in strategic thinking. As Bernard Brodie wrote early in the Cold War, the chief purpose of American arms was no longer to win wars but instead to avert them. Seen in this light, the arms race that developed between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union needed to be risky enough to deter aggressive behavior, but not so risky that it precipitated war. This need, in turn, prompted the likes of William Kaufmann and John Lewis Gaddis to define nuclear deterrence as a form of coercion that rests upon a shifting mix of capability, survivability and intent.
With the end of the Cold War, however, a debate arose over whether traditional nuclear deterrence still had a place in what was now a unipolar world. Indeed, as the RAND Corporation later reported, many analysts saw the 9/11 attacks as the death knell of deterrence. In their eyes, organized violence had become privatized and was now beyond the reach of conventional and nuclear arms. Such a claim was obviously premature, as our Editorial Plan has repeatedly demonstrated. There were, and there continue to be, emerging powers that conflate their prestige, influence and security with increased military might, to include nuclear arms. Given their presence in the world, the reported death of nuclear deterrence has indeed been greatly exaggerated.
Ah, but what forms of deterrence are we now talking about, critics soon asked. Are they, or do they remain, conceptually valid? Additionally, are the international conventions and regimes that underpinned Cold War nuclear deterrence still ‘fit for purpose’ in a multipolar world?
In order to address these questions (and more), we begin this week by sketching out three alternative nuclear futures that may unfold within today’s multipolar world. This exercise in futurology then sets the scene for Tuesday’s discussion on whether the concept of nuclear deterrence remains viable, either in its traditional or updated guises. Indeed, if nuclear deterrence as we know it is unworkable, what are the alternatives? Grappling with this question then leads us to look at Iran and North Korea. Not only do we chart the progress of their respective nuclear programs, we also consider their motivations for acquiring nuclear weapons. Finally, we conclude our week by asking whether the best way to address today’s thorny deterrence-related problems is to abolish nuclear weapons altogether, assuming of course that such a step is both desirable and possible.
24 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
Can we further cut existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons? Are current non-proliferation initiatives managing to keep nuclear programs peaceful? The Center for Security Studies’ Oliver Thränert tackles these questions while outlining several alternative nuclear futures for a changing global security order. More on «What Are Our Alternative Nuclear Futures?»
25 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
Nuclear deterrence, in its various guises, was an essential feature of the Cold War. Because we now live in a multipolar and proliferation-prone world, we confront an obvious question –in what ways, if any, is nuclear deterrence still a viable concept-mechanism to help us prevent future aggression? More on «Deterrence at the Operational Level of War»
26 Sep 2012 / Audio
Despite widespread international concern, Iran’s nuclear program remains a work in progress. What matters more at this stage, argues the Center for Security Studies’ Roland Popp, is determining whether Tehran actually plans to build a stockpile of nuclear weapons or not. More on «Iran's Real Intention: Nuclear Latency»
27 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
Recent satellite images suggest that North Korea is modernizing its nuclear facilities. This not only suggests that its determination to acquire nuclear weapons is now irreversible, it may also require the international community to rethink how it entices Pyongyang back to the negotiation table, or so argues Axel Berkofsky. More on «The Veil Slowly Lifts on North Korea's Nuclear Program»
28 Sep 2012 / Special Feature
Is a nuclear weapons-free world either attainable or desirable? Lawrence Wittner argues that a revived abolition movement can bring about disarmament. As a counter, Bruno Tertrais argues that since abolitionists lack cohesive strategies, a world without nuclear weapons remains out of reach. More on «Getting to Zero -- Is Nuclear Abolition Desirable and/or Feasible?»