The theory of nuclear deterrence is a feeble excuse for nations to hold onto their weapons of mass destruction and a fraud that must be exposed, writes Dr Sue Wareham.
HOW IS IT that “homo sapiens” has persisted with an invention that threatens our very survival, strikes fear in the heart of every rational one among us, diverts an unconscionable quantity of our collective time, labour and finances from things that are actually useful, and at the same time could be eliminated?
All we need to do is dismantle the invention and prioritise efforts to ensure that it remains a historic relic. That could all be done. Our failure to do so thus far is such an extraordinary gamble on our future that we must examine the reasons.
The invention is, of course, nuclear weapons. The answer to the opening question is not so straightforward, but given our current all-time high risk of these weapons being used, the question has never been more important. And given Australia’s rapidly growing enmeshment with the only nation that has used these weapons thus far in warfare, we in Australia have a particular interest in it.
The first response to the question that often comes to mind is that of “power”. That’s true, a tiny minority of the world’s leaders – in nine out of the nearly two hundred countries that make up the global community – see the capacity to inflict unimaginable suffering on others as a marker of global prestige and influence in world affairs.
But, as we shall see, translating a capacity for cruelty to military or political advantage is a completely different matter. And, in any event, even such leaders need to explain to their people how having horrific and widely-condemned weapons is actually a good thing. For this, they need a theory that sounds plausible; it doesn’t need to be valid, but it just needs to sound reassuring and humane.
That theory is nuclear deterrence — the theory that having nuclear weapons keeps a nation safe from attack, especially nuclear attack, because others will be too terrified of a possible nuclear response. The more inhumane our weapons appear, the safer we are and the more certain we are to prevail militarily if any armed conflict does occur — or so the theory goes. The Latin origin “terrere”, to terrify or deter by terror, sums up how deterrence is meant to work.
For Australia, the theory is extended nuclear deterrence, a belief that our ally – the U.S. – would launch its own nuclear weapons if needed to “protect” Australia (whatever that means in practice), even risking a nuclear retaliatory strike on its own shores in the process. Like nuclear deterrence itself, extended nuclear deterrence is no more than an unproven theory.
Nuclear deterrence has been so consistently presented as justification for the world’s worst weapons of mass destruction that it is worth unravelling. If it is found to be faulty, then the primary crutch that bolsters nuclear weapons policies is exposed as a dangerous fraud.
The first major problem with nuclear deterrence theory is that it hasn’t worked. Nuclear weapons have proven to be generally useless in preventing military aggression or bringing military victories. As nuclear weapons abolition advocate Ward Wilson argues: ‘It is possible for a weapon to be too big to be useful.’
History recounts multiple occasions in which a nuclear arsenal on one side of a conflict has been irrelevant to the outcome. Examples include the attacks on or by Vietnam, Afghanistan, the UK-held Falklands, Iraq (1991 and 2003), Lebanon, former Soviet republics, multiple confrontations between India and Pakistan (both nuclear-armed), and others. In addition, crises over the deployment of the weapons have triggered periods of extreme danger, such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The war in Ukraine is the latest example of a war involving a nuclear-armed adversary. Whether or not President Putin follows through with his gravely irresponsible threats to use nuclear weapons in this war remains to be seen, but “winning” a nuclear wasteland would be no more than a pyrrhic victory.
Claims that attacks on non-nuclear armed nations, such as Ukraine, would have been prevented if those nations did have “the bomb” are not supported by evidence. In any event, such claims would lead us to the conclusion that the weapons are essential for every nation — including, say, Iran and North Korea. Deterrence cannot work only for “us” and not for “them”.
Have nuclear weapons played a role in preventing a war between two nuclear-armed superpowers? We don’t know, but there is no evidence for such a role. Even if they did, could we rely on this deterrent effect to always work? The answer is a categorical no; such a proposition is not credible.
This leads to the second major problem with nuclear deterrence theory which is that to be reliable, it must work in every conceivable situation for all time. Common features of human behaviour, such as miscommunication, misunderstanding, clouded judgement or plain incompetence in a period of heightened tensions could spell catastrophe.
Irrational or malevolent leaders who care little about human suffering elevate the risks, as do ongoing cyber and computer vulnerabilities. Nuclear deterrence might be fit for a fantasy world where everything goes according to plan, but it is not fit for the real world. The nuclear weapons era has produced over a dozen “near misses” when detonation of a warhead was very narrowly avoided.
Tellingly, even governments for whom the mantra of deterrence is sacrosanct know all this. Repeatedly, official documents in the U.S. and, presumably, in other nuclear-armed nations, refer to measures needed “if deterrence fails”. Events that could be terminal for much of human civilisation are passed off with those few glib words, “if deterrence fails”, to set out what military strategy kicks in next.
Part of the “what next” for the U.S. is its missile defence program, another vast money-guzzling venture that won’t necessarily work but is designed to intercept incoming enemy nuclear missiles, the ones that haven’t been deterred; it just might save “our” side at least. The response of the “other” side, not to be deterred, is obvious — more missiles, thus the race continues.
There is one thing that “if deterrence fails” scenarios steer well clear of, however — what happens to people and the planet when the bombs do hit their target cities? For deterrence advocates, that’s someone else’s problem.
The third major impediment to nuclear deterrence is that pesky constraint on so many nefarious activities — the law. Since the entry into force in January 2021 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), even the possession of these devices, let alone use or threats to use them, have been explicitly prohibited under international law.
While the prohibition is legally binding only for nations that have joined the Treaty (those with the weapons and their supporters, such as Australia, not yet being among them) its purpose goes much deeper. It replaces whatever international prestige might be attached to the weapons with international opprobrium. The treaties prohibiting both landmines and cluster munitions strongly influenced the behaviour of even nations that hadn’t signed them.
Fourthly, and herein lies the crux of all the above problems, nuclear deterrence is a threat to commit morally abhorrent actions. The incinerating of cities condemns millions of people, guilty and innocent alike, young and old, to the same collective unthinkable punishment. To play any role in deterring, a threat must be credible and therefore acceptable to those making it, something they would be prepared to carry through with in some circumstances.
Being the perpetrator of such suffering, or even just aiding and abetting it as extended nuclear deterrence requires, challenges us to consider whether our common humanity means anything at all. If it does, then committing or even threatening acts of savagery on a grand scale against innocent people has no place. It not only destroys the victims but also degrades the perpetrator.
Beyond the fundamental flaws of nuclear deterrence theory – its failure to prevent wars, its unsuitability for an imperfect world, its illegality and its immorality – it brings further risks and harm.
Economically, the cost of nuclear weapons programs is staggering, diverting scarce funds from essential human and environmental needs. In 2022, the nine nuclear-armed nations between them spent $82.9 billion on their nuclear weapons programs, over half of that being spent by the U.S. — all this for devices with the extraordinary purpose of existing so that they are never used.
With such national treasure invested in being able to commit atrocities, an enemy is needed, or a succession of enemies to suit changing circumstances. The enemy must be portrayed as morally inferior to us, less worthy as humans, so that no fate is deemed too terrible for them.
U.S. President Reagan’s “evil empire” speech of 1983 about the Soviet Union exemplified the process of dehumanising the “other”. President George W Bush’s reference in his January 2002 State of the Union address to the “axis of evil” – comprising Iran, Iraq, North Korea and others – did similarly. While more measured in rhetoric, President Biden’s “democracy versus autocracy” speech in February 2021 carried the same message of U.S. moral authority, for which read supremacy, with which it must confront its enemies.
As our “security” is built on a capacity to destroy, or euphemistically, “deter”, the critical task of building a common future with all people is marginalised. Foreign policies become stunted and skewed far too heavily towards inflicting collective punishment on whole populations rather than the slow and painstaking work of diplomacy to manage international relationships. Cooperation on global challenges such as climate dwindles as enmity is reinforced. Deterrence policy, with nuclear weapons at the pinnacle, erodes our capacity to survive together on this small and troubled planet.
Nuclear weapons themselves must be abolished. Given that they have proven to be almost useless in deterring anything or winning anything, this goal is achievable. Exposing the fraud of nuclear deterrence and extended nuclear deterrence theories – in promising security and yet delivering existential risk – is a key part of that process.
Dr Sue Wareham OAM is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) and a past board member of ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) Australia.
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