Superseding U.S.-Russian Nuclear Deterrence

By Arbatov, Alexei; Boese, Wade | Arms Control Today, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

Superseding U.S.-Russian Nuclear Deterrence


Arbatov, Alexei, Boese, Wade, Arms Control Today


Over time and left unchecked, nuclear deterrence and proliferation are likely to follow Frederick Hegel's dialectical notion of history in which a historical development generates its opposite, or antithesis, and eventually both give way to a new reality or synthesis. Nuclear deterrence (as a policy of leveraging nuclear weapons for political aims) must inevitably give rise to proliferation, as more countries strive to take advantage of the fruits of deterrence to achieve their interests.

As this circle of countries possessing nuclear weapons grows, deterrence will become ever more ambiguous, unstable, and contradictory. States will find it more difficult to resolve such basic strategic questions as how deterrence affects the possibility of a first use of nuclear weapons, whether deterrence can be viewed as a rational approach for policymakers, and what constitutes a country's appropriate command and control responsibilities.

In the past, arms control efforts succeeded in slowing down this historical trend. Now, we are fast approaching the final stage of proliferation and the final contradiction of deterrence: nonstate actors (terrorist organizations) gaining access to nuclear weapons. At that point, deterrence will be effectively finished as a strategy for leveraging nuclear weapons to protect national security. Nuclear deterrence is not effective against terrorists, and terrorists are interested in nuclear weapons solely for direct use and blackmail.

To rein in these terrorist organizations, today's level of cooperation will not suffice. All new threats, as well as new opportunities, urgently require a qualitatively higher level of cooperation among the major world powers. The cooperation required is comparable to that achieved in such alliances as NATO or the Warsaw Pact, but in some spheres, even greater cooperation is required. Nevertheless, better relations are not possible while the United States and Russia base their military and strategic relations on the principles and the material base of mutual nuclear deterrence. Changes are needed both in specific arms programs and the two nuclear superpowers' approach to arms control and disarmament.

Deterrence and Arms Control

Arms control was born out of the desire of the leading powers to stabilize mutual deterrence within acceptable limits. At an early stage in the arms control process, after the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the end of nuclear proliferation began to be viewed as a mandatory condition for progress in nuclear disarmament. After the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed, the powers signed a number of bilateral arms control treaties, from the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), along with multilateral accords such as the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the 1997 Model Additional Protocol granting greater inspection powers to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Yet, these treaties did not fully stop nuclear proliferation, as some countries (India, Pakistan, and possibly North Korea) acquired nuclear weapons.

To defend itself from such rogue proliferators, the United States (and likely other powers in the not-too-distant future) has initiated the development and perfection of a missile defense system and undertaken research into the possibility of using a new generation of nuclear weapons preemptively against terrorist bases or rogue nations. This will likely further undermine the foundations of stable mutual deterrence between the main powers and of the arms limitation and disarmament regimes: already the CTBT, ABM Treaty, START II, and planned START III agreements have fallen victim.

Such moves will also be viewed as not conforming to the spirit of the NPT. That treaty calls in part for the nuclear-weapon states to take steps toward nuclear disarmament in return for non-nuclear-weapon states forgoing such weapons.

A New Approach

It is clearly becoming less productive to depend on deterrence as the main guarantee for preventing a nuclear war. …

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