Michael KreponReconsidering Deterrence Stability

Above: Monument to the Chagai (or Chaghi) Hills nuclear test site, Faizabad Interchange, Islamabad, Pakistan.

What benefits are conferred by nuclear weapons? Do they provide status? Not like in the past. North Korea and Pakistan haven’t gained status by having the Bomb. Instead, they have become more worrisome countries. Do they alleviate security concerns? Possessing nuclear weapons against a similarly-armed foe or against an adversary with stronger conventional capabilities provides a sense of deterrence, dissuasion, and national assurance. To give the Bomb its due, during the Cold War, nuclear weapons helped keep border skirmishes limited between major powers, fostered cautionary behavior in severe crises, and reinforced a natural disinclination to engage in large-scale conventional wars. These were – and remain — significant accomplishments.

But the Bomb always promises more than it delivers. Possessing the Bomb, even in significant numbers, has not deterred limited border clashes between nuclear-armed states, conventional wars with non-nuclear-weapon states, punishing proxy wars and severe crises. The Bomb isn’t stabilizing; it exacerbates security dilemmas and can engender risk taking as well as caution. The Bomb promises advances in security that are quickly undercut by countermeasures taken by wary adversaries.

States that acquire nuclear weapons don’t feel safe without them. They also do not feel safe with them – if they have something to fight about with another nuclear-armed state. Having assured retaliatory capabilities helps, but assurance erodes in an interactive nuclear arms competition. A key threshold for erosion occurs when the contestants move from counter value to counterforce targeting. Increments in counterforce capabilities lead to and decrements in deterrence stability – even under conditions of absurd nuclear overkill.

Strategic and deterrence stability are about political relations, not technical advances. The United States and the Soviet Union never achieved deterrence stability until the Soviet Union was heading toward collapse. Brief periods of détente were interrupted by clashes of interest in far away as well as sensitive places. Constraints on nuclear testing and arms limitation treaties negotiated with great effort were accompanied by modernization programs that lessened mutual security. Deterrence stability between the superpowers was accomplished only when two unorthodox leaders – one whose economy was cratering – threw nuclear orthodoxy out the window and sought to normalize ties.

India and Pakistan will find deterrence stability as elusive as the nuclear superpowers, even though their nuclear competition pales in comparison and they have not yet embraced counterforce targeting for longer-range delivery vehicles. Deterrence stability on the subcontinent, as elsewhere, rests on the prospect of resolving or mutually agreeing to defer issues in dispute and, in Pakistan’s case, regaining a monopoly on the use of violence within and across its borders. In the near term, these prospects are iffy, at best. Deterrence instability is inherent when an interactive nuclear arms competition gets mixed up with religion, inheritance, and regional security issues, not to mention a history of conventional and sub-conventional warfare.

There’s more hope for India and China to work out arrangements of deterrence stability — if their border dispute remains shelved or resolved, and if they manage to avoid venturing into counterforce capabilities. The combination of a quiet, albeit contested border, plus growing trade and investment ties alongside mutual strategic restraint would make for a stabilizing mix. But this won’t be easy.

For more on the contested valuation of nuclear weapons, aspiring wonks can check out a volume of essays, Nuclear Diplomacy and Crisis Management, co-edited by Sean Lynn-Jones, Steve Miller, and Steve Van Evera (MIT Press, 1990). Robert Jervis’s essay argues that nuclear weapons have only limited utility is preventing war:

“It is rational to start a war one does not expect to win… if it is believed that the likely consequences of fighting are even worse. War could also come through inadvertence, loss of control, or irrationality… At best, then, nuclear weapons will keep the nuclear peace; they will not prevent – and indeed, may facilitate – the use of lower levels of violence.”

John Mueller’s essay in this volume – and his provocative book, Atomic Obsession (2010) – argues otherwise, “that nuclear weapons neither crucially define a fundamental stability nor threaten severely to disturb it.” Here’s more from Mueller:

“Escalation is key: what deters is the belief that escalation to something intolerable will occur, not so much what the details of the ultimate unbearable punishment are believed to be.”

“It almost seems … that the two major powers have forgotten how to get into a war… There hasn’t been a true, bone-crunching confrontational crisis for over a quarter-century.”

“Since preparations for major war are essentially irrelevant, they are profoundly foolish.”

This week’s pop quiz: Do Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s actions into eastern Ukraine support Jervis, Mueller, or both?


  1. Jon Davis (History)

    I believe Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Vladimir Putin’s actions support both Jervis and Mueller. Both allude to the use of nuclear weapons as too great a risk to take. However, Jervis appears to be very perceptive in his belief that nuclear weapons may facilitate the use of lower levels of violence. What concerns me though is if Putin is borrowing a page from the Nixon madman playbook? And hopefully Russia doesn’t try to play the “de-escalation” card if things ever did escalate to a military confrontation.

  2. OT (History)

    Nuclear weapon is most excellent vechile for state sponsored corruption, as it is made of secret high value information. It provides high yield career opportunities for educated elite in science, military and state security apparatus. Nobody questions money spent, everybody knows it’s expensive business and national security depends on it, so you can steal all you can while feeling patriotic.

    Results don’t matter so much, as non-existence of the weapon is a state secret. Parade some mock-ups and internet does the deterrence for you.

    I’m of the school that believes that dynamics of military-industrial complexes have more impact than actual state security in development of nuclear (and convential) stockpiles, and would merit much more academic attention. Nations have been frequently overran by their own MIC at least since Sparta.

    • tobias.piechowiak@gmx.de (History)

      I totally agree with your analysis.
      Nuclear deterrence is becoming
      self-purpose for the “keepers”.
      Especially because scrutiny is easily avoided by the secret nature
      of national security.
      This must be even worse for countries which face big internal tensions .
      Pakistan is ruled by the military partly due to their control over the deterrence.

    • Muhammad Umar (History)

      I can understand why a person would think that the military rules in Pakistan, but it has nothing to do with deterrence. The reason the military has to take on so many of the civilian responsibilities is simply due to the fact that the civil government as well as bureaucracy is incompetent.

      This is not just my opinion. Dr. Ishrat Hussain, a life long bureaucrat and former Governor of the Pakistan State Bank talked about a study he did, he looked at the graduating batch of army officers in the same year as he joined the civil services. Out of the 308 officers that graduated, only one rose to the rank of a 3-star Lt. General, eight to the rank of a 2-star Maj. Gen., and approx. a dozen to the rank of 1-star Brig. Gens… the rest never made it past the Major rank. Out of all his colleagues that joined the Pakistani Civil Services that year, all except two of them rose to become grade-22 officers (equiv. to 4-star generals).. the two that did not rise to that rank, had left the the civil services on their own.

      The point that Dr. Ishrat Hussain was making at the Ideas 2015 Conclave, was that the army is a merit based institution that is good ad weeding out incompetent people from its ranks. The army also ensures that their people are properly trained, and can handle a bigger leadership role before giving them more responsibility.

      Whereas in the civil services, there is no reward/punishment system for good/bad work, once you’re in, you’re guaranteed to stay on until you reach your retirement age. Because of this the civil services remain weak, and their capacity does not grow.

      Recent example, Pakistan ran out of oil, because of the sheer incompetence of the civil services and political leaders. Making the country a laughing stock. A twitter user summed it up pretty well, when he commented: If you put the Pak’s Federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand.

      There is no other institution in Pakistan capable of running the country. The army has never forced itself into power, it has always had to come in to clean up after the civil government, just as they did after the tragic 16 Dec attacks in Peshawar. The government was busy talking to the Taliban…

    • Tobias (History)

      Good point. Never thought it could be that the military is just a more effective administrator.
      It surely is a combination of multiple reasons.


  3. Muhammad Umar (History)

    Sir, acquiring the bomb was never about status for Pakistan, it has always been about security. For countries like India, and Iran it has always been about prestige and status. And trying to bracket Pakistan with North Korea is malafide.

    Recent events would suggest that if there is a relationship that involves North Korea, it is with the United States.

    Both countries are equals in trying to deter and fight each other. The recent cyber warfare and the U.S. efforts to deter North Korea and provide extended deterrence to the South Koreans are some of the issues between the two nations.

    Pakistan has nothing in common or against North Korea – it is akin to comparing apples and oranges.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Speaking strictly as an outsider, I see lots of status seeking in Pakistan’s behavior. Pakistan competes with, provokes, and fights India to prove itself “equal” to India. Or as you put it, “equals in trying to deter and fight each other.” But this is nonsense. India’s population is six times that of Pakistan. Trying to “equal” or “best” India in a military competition is like a lightweight pursuing the heavyweight championship.

      If Pakistan truly seeks security, simply make peace with India. There is more security in peace than there ever can be in conventional or nuclear armaments.

    • Krepon (History)

      Methinks you protest too much. When someone says that X, Y, or Z isn’t about status, it’s at least partly about status.

      The primary reason for acquiring the Bomb is different: Countries seek the Bomb because they have serious security issues that they feel cannot be addressed thru other means.

      This applies to India as well as Pakistan.It would be best if Pakistanis dropped this talking point.

    • riaksh (History)

      well, but dnt you think nuclear weapons actually has ensured peace. if peace with Indian at the cost of finlandisation,that’s totally irrational. Pakistan trust on nukes thta it has stpoed india to wage a war . deterrence history has proved this though,

  4. John R. Harvey (History)

    Two points:

    1. Is there a “not” missing before “fighting” in the Jervis quote.

    2. In the case of Ukraine, deterrence (nuke or conventional) is not relevant. Putin calculated that U.S. vital interests were not at stake to the degree he believed Russia’s were, and that the West therefore would not prevent him from achieving his objective of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty and keeping it in Russia’s sphere of influence. Indeed, there was no credible military option for the West to prevent the take-over of Crimea even if we had substantial warning of Russia’s intent. The U.S. has no alliance with Ukraine and no commitment to come to its defense. While many of us abhor Putin’s trampling of the post-Cold War order in seeking to change national boundaries by force, and fear its implications for future international security, the U.S. had no compelling national security interests that would have justified the risks of direct military intervention.

    • Jon Davis (History)

      “The U.S. has no alliance with Ukraine and no commitment to come to its defense.”

      This is not true. It directly conflicts with the Budapest Memorandum.

      “The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is a political agreement signed in Budapest, Hungary on 5 December 1994, providing security assurances by its signatories relating to Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The Memorandum was originally signed by three nuclear powers, the Russian Federation, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom. China and France gave somewhat weaker individual assurances in separate documents.[1]

      The memorandum included security assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine as well as those of Belarus and Kazakhstan. As a result Ukraine gave up the world’s third largest nuclear weapons stockpile between 1994 and 1996,[2][3] of which Ukraine had physical though not operational control.”