#learn power wednesdays: Nuclear deterrence


It is hard to fit thinking about nuclear weapons in one little post. But I shall not be deterred (the pun to end all puns). I am taking comfort from the fact that I will be in the illustrious company of Thérèse Delpech (11.02.48 – 18.02.2012), distinguished French strategic thinker with a background in philosophy and expert on nuclear questions.

Her last book, published posthumously, “Deterrence in the 21st century – Lessons from the Cold War for a new era of strategic Piracy” (full text available online) is a timely reminder that the issue of nuclear weapons remains as relevant as during the Cold War, and that the current generation of thinkers grappling with international relations needs to urgently ponder their strategic implications in the context of our hyper-competitive, interconnected world. 

And that is no small feat. In certain respects, nuclear doctrine comes closest to heeding Clausewitzian principles of war as a dynamic, reciprocal activity. But let’s face it, to think about nuclear warfare, you need a quite particular psychological structure – mentally robust enough to ponder Armageddon without becoming a dehumanised machine. Capable of imagining your opponent’s reactions without slipping into paranoia. This capacity is not given to everyone, but Ms Delpech would argue that it needs to be strenuously exercised.

What are some of the trends for the future?

Nuclear weapons have arguably prevented direct confrontation between the world’s super powers in the past and continue to have a stabilising impact. Owning nuclear weapons, or being
explicitly or implicitly under their “shield” as a member of an alliance
is a very cost-effective national security guarantee. The existence of nuclear weapons shapes regional conflicts.

Since 1997, after a decade of treaties reducing the nuclear arsenal, disarmament, i.e., credible moves towards a world free from nuclear weapons seems to be getting nowhere. The track record for nuclear non-proliferation –  to stop other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons in the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – is mixed. A lot of time and effort has been invested in safeguarding nuclear materials to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorist groups, successfully so far.

What role will nuclear weapons play in current and future conflicts? What is their relationship to cyber space, or space? Can deterrence work on states/ non-state actors that do not perceive their opponents as human? These are all relevant questions, yet seemingly a whole generation, at least in vast
swathes of the world has stopped thinking about nuclear weapons. The
institutional memory from the Cold War is all but gone.

One thing is for certain – An absence of strategic thought on the topic of nuclear weapons is simply not a viable option, as we will see tomorrow with a look at Russia’s current military posture.

Further reading:

Thérèse Delpech, L’ensauvagement : essai sur le retour de la barbarie au XXIe siècle, Paris, B. Grasset, 2005 (Savage Century : Back to Barbarism, Translator: George Holoch, September 2008)


A list of films on the topic of nuclear war. My personal favourites: “Dr. Strangelove”, and “Failsafe”

Johanna M

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