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The loopholes in the nuclear deterrence theory

By Rameez Raja

This study identifies the role of several academic think tanks, political scientists, who have studied wars, conflicts, and security policies of numerous states across the globe. The study covers nuclear issues which are assumed as a great threat to world peace and security. It also shows how deterrence theory is problematic and the role of anti-nuclear activists and civil society for nuclear disarmament.

My analysis begins with a brief introduction of the discovery of nuclear energy which transformed the security policy of the states. The study provides a brief argument of the deterrent theorists, realists, neo-realists and counter response from peace activists. I assume that deterrence theory is awkward because it has been supported in terms of strategic studies rather than by peace research.

Origin of nuclear energy

As we witness the discoveries and inventions by the scientists that transformed the life of humans to a great extent, we also recall with fear and anger several deadly accidents that occurred in the past. The energy is utilized for peace as well as for destructive purposes. However, the nuclear energy case is different. Whether it is used for generating electricity or making nuclear arsenal, it is hazardous to biodiversity. The nuclear states currently worship nuclear energy for development and have undermined the bad consequences of the nuclear radiation. This energy should be banned.

The scientists such as Albeit Einstein who championed the cause of nuclear energy are regarded as great. Leo Szillard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, Ernest Rutherford, and Frederic Soddy contributed to this field in the 1940s. The other discoveries from James Chadwick, Carl Anderson, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, Frederic Juliot-Curie, Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Lise Meitner helped the world know about nuclear energy in the 1930s. Currently, all the declared nuclear states along with the threshold nuclear states and non-nuclear weapon states are busy in nuclear research with the help of thousands of scientists, physicists, and engineers.

The United States bombardment of Japan in 1945 has traumatized the world in general and Japan in particular. In response, the former Soviet Union conducted its nuclear explosion in 1949. Subsequently, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have joined the nuclear club.

Are we heading towards a nuclear winter?

The discovery of nuclear energy or radioactivity in the 1930s and 40s by the scientists in a sense murdered the true spirit of science. After the bombings by the US of Japan in 1945, physicists and nuclear scientists practically got to know about the massive amount of energy a nuclear explosion can release. At around the same time, scientists started experimenting to harness nuclear energy for generating electricity. However, after the destruction caused by atomic explosions in Japan, Einstein changed his stance towards using nuclear energy. Along with him, many other nuclear scientists and bomb designers like Ted Taylor, John Gofman, and Michio Kaku turned anti-nuclear activists after studying the harmful effects of nuclear radiation. Kennette Benedict, a senior advisor to Bulletin of the Atomic Scientistsargues that the three communities which benefit by supporting nuclear warheads are “weapons scientists and engineers, private military contractors, and the government nuclear weapon bureaucracy.” Some of the works of realists and neo-realists like Hans Morgenthau’s Politics among Nations, Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics and John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics championed the deterrence theory for avoiding major wars. In addition, Herman Kahn supported nuclear weapons for deterrence factor in his piece, “Thinking about the unthinkable”. Kahn even argued that threatening a nuclear war for deterrence is morally right and supports nuclear war if deterrence fails. Astonishingly, he argues that nuclear war would not leave the world lifeless. However, physicists, environmentalists, think tanks across the globe rejected Kahn’s assessment that nuclear war will be less destructive and can be won. Furthermore, Bernard Brodie in his book, The Absolute Weapons: Atomic Power and World Order, also argued that with the help of nukes, the chief purpose must be to avert a war. Surprisingly, the nuclear hawks feel proud of their nuclear achievements and development, despite the fact that nukes fail to provide them with total security. In addition, nuclear energy is not a cheap source for generating electricity as reported by physicist, M. V. Ramana, in his book, The Power of Promise. 

The most important question is: why are the majority of people silent about the current nuclear crisis? It is because of the belief system created by nuclear hawks and nuclear nationalists to control our minds – that for national security, nukes are the first priority. In addition to this, nuclear scientists keep insisting that nuclear energy is pollution free and a cheap source for electricity generation. However, the statements are completely contrary to the claims made by many physicists and scientists, who argue that nuclear energy can never be economical for generating electricity. The notion that nuclear energy is reducing carbon emissions has also been challenged by the Japanese nuclear chemist, Jinzabura Takagi.

Several social scientists and physicists have challenged the concept of using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes as it is totally hazardous in terms of mishaps and nuclear wastage. For instance, the reprocessing, breeder reactors are hazardous and tanks for storing spent fuel are prone to rupture and leakage. The radioactive fallout can happen because of technical or mechanical errors. Natural calamities such as earthquakes, tsunamis, fast winds, and cyclones are often disregarded by the authorities. For instance, Fukushima nuclear disaster happened due to an earthquake and tsunami; similarly, many nuclear plants are located in seismic zones IV which is in total violation of the international safety provisions.

The ‘Atoms for Peace Programme’ was a poor decision that culminated in chaos and instability. There is hardly a difference between the reactors used for electricity generation or for manufacturing nukes. It is interesting to note that most of nuclear states which passed a finance bill in the name of peaceful utilization of nuclear energy secretly utilized it for weapons development programmes. In the name of peaceful utilization of nuclear energy, the nuclear industries have sold nuclear equipment to the states which are not even members to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Obviously, the recipient countries offered enormous amount of money to the nuclear suppliers in return.

In his masterpiece, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer guides the states to help a neighbouring state to counter its enemy for becoming a hegemon to surpass them. That is why he called his theory “Offensive Realism”. Mearsheimer has also used the term “Buck-Passing” which implies the distribution of power when faced with a dangerous rival, for instance, alliances to counter an enemy.

It is totally absurd to claim that some nukes are good, while others are bad. The truth is that it was the US president Truman with the support of scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, and military engineer, Major General Leslie Groves, who carried out the nuclear experiments that killed thousands of non-combatants and innocent people in Japan in 1945. The atomic bombs were dropped without any warning in Japan and the zeal for acquiring nukes started after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US. There are two assumptions: if the so-called rogue states behave reasonably, then it is wrong to assume these states a rogue state; if, unfortunately, these states respond with nukes, then waltz’s deterrence theory is disproved!

The principles of deterrence theories are nothing but a myth. For deterrence, rational decision-making is an important element. However, it is difficult to determine who is rational and who is irrational. The US has positioned some of its nuclear warheads on high alert. According to the 2017 nuclear report published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, there are nearly 15000 nukes located at some 107 sites in 14 countries and surprisingly some 1800 nukes are on high alert and ready for use on short notice. The US war on Afghanistan and Iraq has been analysed by the experts who believe that nukes were not used because both Muslim states were non-nuclear. However, the case with North Korea is totally different; it has tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the US. A hydrogen bomb test has worried many political scientists like Scott Sagan, who have suggested that the US should accept North Korea as a nuclear power. The aggressive behaviour and attitude of Donald Trump towards North Korea have been analysed by several writers and political analysts, who believe that it may not trigger a nuclear war. After all, it is the United States that helped the world know about nuclear weapons as the deterrence theory was mostly championed by the Americans. The US does not believe in the status quo “defensive realism”, which, according to Waltz, promotes deterrence but follows Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism”, which claims that states can only be secure when they eliminate all significant enemies.

While differentiating between these two neo-realists, Glenn Snyder argues that Mearsheimer’s states are ‘haunted by fear’ and waltz’s states are ‘less fearful’. Both the neo-realists undermine peace research, humanity, ethics and share their cognition in relation to strategic studies. In his piece, “Trust, Deterrence, Realism, and Nuclear Omnicide”, Alexander Gralnick challenges the realism theory, as he writes: “Certainly we know there is concealment, exaggeration, and misrepresentation meant to gain advantage but not the goal of mutual trust. Honesty and truth are sacrificed. Peace is the price paid. Mankind continues threatened. Realism is unknown!” Snyder argues that it is because of nukes that a situation of stability-instability paradox is created. However, in his book, India, Pakistan and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia, S. Paul Kapur rejects the stability-instability paradox and argues that nuclear weapons have created such a paradox due to the constant aggressive behaviour of the nuclear states. Similarly, Saira Khan in her book, Nuclear Weapons and Conflict Transformation: The Case of India-Pakistan, argues that stability cannot be compromised with the absence of war, while the crisis still persists. Stability should mean both absence of war and absence of crisis; in the context of India and Pakistan, there is only instability and crisis. Further, in his piece, “The Buddha Frowns? Tactical Nuclear Weapons in South Asia”, Timothy Hoyt posits that South Asia still remains a dangerous area in spite of statements from few analysts that nukes would induce stability.

In a nutshell, nukes are not an important factor for deterrence; it is actually actors who make nukes an important factor for deterrence. However, actors are prone to making mistakes, as was the case with President Truman, who dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Whether it is the US, North Korea, India or Pakistan, nukes have no role to play in inducing stability in a region. The only way to reduce tensions is to devise and analyze policies through peace research rather than by strategic studies, as argued by Ramesh Thakur in his book, Nuclear Weapons and International Security. Unfortunately, the nuclear industry is prompting states to accelerate their nuclear weapons programme by supplying nuclear equipment. The international community hardly cares about the issue of nuclear radiation except for a few NGOs and analysts. “Nuclear omnicide” is a better term to define the worst future that might result from the exchange of 15000 nuclear warheads. It is actually distrust that culminates in deterrence theory. It is better to share John Somerville’s argument that the term ‘War’ is now both incorrect and misleading due to availability of nukes. Nevertheless, it is wrong to say that nukes/deterrence prevents war with hundreds of nukes at high trigger alert. While studying nuclear policies of respective states, this author has come to believe that the deterrence theory has culminated in a never-ending race to achieve superiority in weapons development that will definitely be used someday. Einstein’s painful words after Japan’s bombardment should be remembered: “Everything has changed except the human thinking.” It is important for economists to ask the nuclear states what they have gained by spending countless amount of money on nuclear deterrence which could have been used for eradicating poverty and disease across the globe. In Countdown, Amitav Ghosh writes: “The pursuit of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent is the moral equivalent of civil war: the targets the rulers have in mind for these weapons are, in the end, none other than their own people.”

Role of anti-nuclear activists and civil society for a nuclear-free world

The anti-nuclear activists and civil society have started several initiatives to influence governmental decision on the development and acquisition of nuclear weapons. For instance, the launch of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) campaign in May 1999 was to control small arms with the help of civil society organizations. IANSA membership includes Human Rights Watch, OXFAM, Amnesty International, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Comic Relief, People and Planet, and the Asian Brotherhood Concern. The efforts for arms control by these civil society organizations culminated in a decision made by the First Committee of the UN General Assembly on 10 October, 2006 to commence work on such a treaty. Russia and China abstained from voting and the US was the only government to vote against the movement. However, 139 governments voted to open negotiations on the treaty. While the civil society organizations are involved in arms control movements, it is difficult to control arms owing to the unresponsive attitude of powerful governments. This is one of the important challenges for nuclear disarmament. There are some international anti-nuclear movements and organizations such as Greenpeace, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICANW), Global Zero and International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which work with national or local anti-nuclear movements for nuclear disarmament. In addition, some religious communities are trying their best to save the world from a nuclear winter. For instance, the current spiritual head of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community worldwide, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad has delivered speeches in several parliaments in the West regarding the futility of the nuclear weapons and has sent official letters to the heads of the nuclear states. Most of his speeches and letters are collected in World Crises and the Pathway to Peace and is distributed freely all over world.

On 23 December, 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted a historic resolution that determined to “negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination” and encouraged all member states to participate. The resolution got 113 states in favour, 35 against, with 13 abstentions. As expected, the US, England, and France have not joined talks on nuclear weapons ban treaty in New York because these three states are more committed to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is interesting to note that Japan, the only state to suffer nuclear attack, also voted against the talks. Russia, India, and Pakistan were among the abstentions. However, India changed its stand and officially announced that it will not participate in the nuclear weapons abolition treaty. The reason is simple: most of the states consider nuclear weapons a symbol of power and status.

What are the reasons for western nuclear states skipping talks on prohibition of nuclear weapons? The answer might be North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. The US Ambassador, Nikki Haley, told the reporters: “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone that believes that North Korea would agree to a ban on nuclear weapons?” However, it was these declared nuclear states that paved the way for nuclear proliferation due to their flawed policies like Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, which was discriminatory in nature. North Korea and Iran withdrew from the NPT after finding the treaty inappropriate. If these declared nuclear states were really concerned about nuclear proliferation and peace, they would not have implemented the flawed policies like the NPT and CTBT, which speak of only horizontal and not vertical proliferation. If the US is reluctant to ratify the CTBT and is busy building a nuclear arsenal by computer simulation, why is it unreasonable to go nuclear for other states? The executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Beatrice Fihn, said in a statement: “It is disappointing to see some countries with strong humanitarian records standing with a government which threatens a new arms race.”

The veto power is utilized to fulfil the interest of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. It is interesting to note that the US government has cast at least eleven votes in relation to resolutions regarding Israel, reflecting the so-called ‘Negroponte Doctrine’, stated by Damien Rogers. The UN Security Council (UNSC) decisions or peacekeeping operations do not suggest that it is working unanimously because there is a disparity in operating peacekeeping forces in conflict areas between the UNSC permanent members. For instance, areas such as Southern Ossetia, Chechnya, Tibet, and Northern Ireland remain elusive among the members of the UNSC, primarily because these areas fall within the spheres of influence of Russian Federation, China, and the UK respectively with each having the veto power.

Nuclear weapons are not for conflict transformation, but merely a symbol of power. George Perkovich and Acton James in their essay, “Abolishing Nuclear Weapons”, argue that political will is necessary to abolish nuclear weapons. The pledges for nuclear disarmament by respective leaders should be implemented: for example, Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for nuclear abolition in 1986, Rajiv Gandhi’s speech at the United Nations on nuclear disarmament in 1988, and the US president Barack Obama’s call in 2009.

The nuclear weapons states ought to participate in every disarmament conference and peace initiative such as the UN General Assembly’s call for abolition of nukes. It is very difficult to reach and eliminate nuclear weapons at one time. However, the states have to find a solution for nuclear disarmament as they know how expensive and risky it is for them to handle nuclear weapons. Moreover, nuclear accidents and unauthorized use of nuclear weapons do not provide assured retaliation, thereby weakening deterrence stability. Therefore, it is important that nuclear powers first try to settle the unresolved disputes and then move towards reduction of arms. It is not the responsibility of nuclear states alone to make efforts for nuclear disarmament. The non-nuclear weapons states should also unite to provide a platform where all nuclear states can sit together to formulate such policies that can win hearts of all states. The civil society can play a leading role in arms reduction by pressurizing their respective governments to disclose information about nuclear arsenals. The anti-nuclear activists and NGOs should unite to organize seminars about the accountability of nuclear weapons. Every citizen has a right to know about the governance of nukes of their respective states. Otherwise, the time is not far when weak or underdeveloped states will channelize their resources in the wrong directions, burdening us with more deadly weapons.


Rameez Raja, an ICSSR fellow, is pursuing Ph. D. at the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India. He specializes in India’s nuclear policy. His writings have previously appeared in Rising Kashmir, Café Dissensus Everyday, Kafila, South Asia Journal, Foreign Policy News, Modern Diplomacy, Pakistan Observer, Kashmir Observer, and Kashmir Monitor. Email ID:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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