Cold-War Nuclear Deterrence

Cold-war nuclear deterrence continues to prevent use of the weapons, but escalation is still possible and more countries now have them.

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”.

Lawrence Freedman’s article, Escalation, Red Lines, Risk and the Russo-Ukraine War, describes Herman Kahn’s concepts of the ‘escalation ladder’ and ‘escalation dominance’ and how they affect American policy towards Russia in the Ukraine conflict.  He highlighted the central weakness of this type of thinking:

“The problem lies in the idea that war progresses through a series of discrete, sequential steps, each one carrying more risk than the one before, so that a war becomes more violent and gets out of control by degrees. The individual steps on the ladder could supposedly be distinguished one from the other, and potentially recognised by the enemy, so that the significance of each move, each passing threshold, would be appreciated. Each step up the ladder had a potentially political as well as a military content. While trying to win whatever battles were being fought, a message was sent to the enemy about the extent to which restraint was still being shown and the consequential risks if these restraints were removed. It was a form of bargaining, a competition in risk taking which must not be allowed to get out of hand.

Kahn recognised that the adversary might have a different ladder in mind, with more or fewer steps, with thresholds viewed differently. If that was the case then this was likely to be an imperfect means of communication. The intended significance of each move might be missed as they would be appreciated through quite different conceptual lenses.”

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/edition04/7421a.htm.