Cold-War Nuclear Deterrence

Cold-war nuclear deterrence relied on the idea that fear would prevent war; nuclear proliferation has introduced new risks, though.

Nuclear weapons were developed towards the end of the Second World War.  The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, demonstrated their huge destructive potential and they were credited with bringing the war to an end.  Nuclear deterrence has prevented Russia and America from attacking each other directly, but it hasn’t stopped them engaging in proxy wars: supporting opposing sides in in Syria, for example.  And China and America supported opposite sides during the Korean War, as described in a BBC article entitled The Korean War: An Overview.

Russia and America built up huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, which have become increasingly powerful, in an arms race during the Cold War period.  The logic behind this arms race was to deter the opponent from attacking, because there would be instant retaliation and both countries would be completely destroyed.  No one would dare to use them.   A BBC article, How did we forget about mutually-assured destruction? , reviewed the history of that doctrine and asked why people are now less aware of the risks: “Today the risk is not so much armageddon but a “slippery slope” of proliferation”.

Cold-war nuclear deterrence also depended on the assumption that only a handful of law-abiding countries would have them.  It was obvious that the situation would become riskier if more countries possessed nuclear weapons.  The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of 1968 was intended to restrict nuclear weapons to the five nuclear powers which then had them.  These nuclear powers undertook to negotiate to achieve complete disarmament and the non-nuclear signatories to the treaty would submit to inspections to prevent proliferation.  This was very effective for a while, but the treaty began to unravel towards the end of the century:

●  The nuclear powers didn’t scale down their arsenals.

●  Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea all made nuclear weapons.

In a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace meeting, After Iraq: U.S. Strategy in the Middle East after the Troops Come Home, Jessica Mathews argued that the Non-Proliferation Treaty was crumbling because of inadequate progress on nuclear disarmament.  The proliferation of nuclear weapons is now increasingly threatening world peace.

A world in which many countries have nuclear weapons is vulnerable to mistakes being made and to weapons falling into the hands of people who would use them without qualms.  It is now debatable whether disarmament can ever be confidently achieved, but some new arrangements need to be negotiated to reduce what otherwise looks like an exponentially increasing risk.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/7421.htm.