What If Nuclear Deterrence Fails?

Headline photo of an atomic detonation by FEMA/Wikimedia Commons.

“Long live deterrence to dissuade nuclear attacks” blasted the headline on Gwynne Dyer’s December 6, 2021 column in The Hill Times. And then came this subheader:

“It’s not absolutely foolproof, but it has protected us all from nuclear war for 75 years.”

There is just one obvious problem with this statement. In order for deterrence to work, it has to be absolutely 100 percent foolproof. The consequence of it being less than that is beyond catastrophic. It could amount to the end of life on earth as we know it. That’s one hell of a gamble. And it’s a gamble that is not morally defensible on any level. It’s one that should never be taken.

As we wrote on the cover of our pamphletThe Myth of Deterrence: Why nuclear weapons don’t deter or protect and aren’t really weapons at all — “The only way to be 100% certain of nuclear deterrence is to have 100% nuclear weapons abolition.”

Trusting in nuclear deterrence is a risk of such monumental humanitarian consequences that it changed the entire dialogue around disarmament, prompting a new civil society movement to push the United Nations to adopt, sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The TPNW worked — and came into law in January 2021 — precisely because the issue of nuclear weapons was viewed from the perspective of their humanitarian consequences if used.

Those consequences — and the myth of nuclear deterrence that could allow such horrors to play out — was discussed eloquently during an online event recently by a man who played an integral part in steering the TPNW into fruition — Ambassador Alexander Kmentt of Austria.

Kmentt recently published a book — The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons. How it was Achieved and Why it Matterstelling the behind-the-scenes backstory of how the treaty happened and, as the title suggests, defending its necessity. He gave a recent talk on the contents and background to his book, hosted by the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.

The impediment of deterrence, clung to by governments and academics, is, says Kmentt, “a psychological construct,” one “based on an assumption of rationality: If both sides have it, we will never use it.” It is even, admits Kmentt, “a very attractive idea.”

But when the proponents of deterrence, such as Dyer, argue that deterrence has proven effective, Kmentt pushes back.

“It’s not proof,” he says. “It’s an assumption.  We can assume nuclear weapons prevented nuclear war. Do we know for sure it will be the case in the future? Neither can I prove that nuclear deterrence doesn’t work, but also proponents cannot prove that it does work.”

Starting with the acceptance that deterrence is an assumption, what, asks Kmentt, can we actually prove? “I think it’s very clear that what we can prove and what we know is the level of consequences that would happen if something goes wrong.”

The reason that the TPNW is such a profound challenge to the theory of deterrence, argues Kmentt, is that it proposes facts against assumptions. Since we cannot be sure that deterrence would work, then “the prudent, the rational approach must be to try to get out of this dynamic.”

This makes the TPNW “a realist argument based on empirically demonstrable facts against an assumption which I would argue is more of a Utopian belief that nuclear deterrence will continue to be stable into the future,” Kmentt concluded.

This of course means that there has been no nuclear war not because of our possession of nuclear weapons, but despite them. We have relied on luck, about as flimsy a gamble as relying, as Dyer does, on deterrence to work indefinitely.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will soon announce the new time on its famous Doomsday Clock. It is currently set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. These days, it factors in not only the nuclear risks but those from climate change and “disruptive technologies” as well. Kmentt predicts the hands could move even closer to midnight this time.

We face “three existential risks,” he says, “climate change, pandemics, and nuclear war.” The first two are firmly upon us. But, adds Kmentt, “the difference with nuclear war is that we only have the chance to deal with it preventatively.  And we are are not really very good at imagining a situation after nuclear war so we try to screen it out.”

We may continue to look away, preferring to deal with threats that seem more tangible, more near-term. But continuing to live in a world where we accept that nuclear deterrence may be “not absolutely foolproof” makes us the fools.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She can be contacted at linda@beyondnuclear.org.