Nuclear Deterrence and the High Cost of Being Wrong

Photograph Source: The U.S. Government – Public Domain

Arguments around nuclear deterrence can become quickly convoluted. But the basic premise, according to those who advocate it, is that we are safer with nuclear weapons than without them. The possession of nuclear weapons by the world’s major powers, they say, has kept the peace. The lethality of nuclear weapons is such that they will inevitably never be used, thus preventing nuclear war, the argument goes.

To the rational ear this sounds breathtakingly illogical. But try tangling with the deterrence crowd and both sides will quickly find themselves tied up in a semantic knot of double and triple negatives.

However, it’s all really quite simple, or it seems so when listening to Austrian diplomat Alexander Kmentt explain it. Kmentt, one of the chief architects of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), just has a knack for framing the argument against deterrence both clearly and compellingly. Here is how he puts it:

“I can’t prove that deterrence doesn’t work. And I can’t prove that it does. But the price of being wrong if it doesn’t work is too high. It cannot fail.”

Kmentt was addressing an audience of European representatives of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War at their January 2023 conference in Hamburg, Germany. (I was also a presenter there so enjoyed the privilege of hearing Kmentt’s talk, which was delivered live streamed.)

This rationale makes sense. For deterrence to work, it must be 100% foolproof all the time. But anything governed by human beings — and technology invented by them — can guarantee no such thing. And given the price of failure, the choice is obvious: deterrence isn’t worth the risk.

There is a solution to all this and it is contained in the TPNW, of which Kmentt, and many others, can be so rightfully proud. You can indeed guarantee zero chance of a nuclear war if there are zero nuclear weapons in the world. “With the TPNW, deterrence was rejected,” Kmentt said. A first. In another first, “it is the first treaty that recognizes the injustices done.”

Those injustices are invariably meted out to smaller nations, and it was they who lined up in significant enough numbers to both sign and then ratify the TPNW. “If deterrence fails, small states are the collateral damage,” Kmentt pointed out.

In fact, the TPNW is so innovatory — Kmentt referred to it as “an avant-garde treaty”— that it departed from all earlier treaty scripts by encouraging full inclusion and participation. Framing it was “open to outside voices, to civil society and to academia,” Kmentt told the Hamburg audience. “There were observers.” This set it apart from the halls-of-power treaties that preceded it.

And it remains an open process. “We are clear that we are welcoming to whoever wants to engage with us on arguments around the treaty,” said Kmentt. “If countries didn’t show up, it was not a reaction to something we did.”

There has been —and remains — as Kmnett noted, considerable opposition toward the TPNW, particularly from the nuclear weapon countries. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN at the time, Nikki Haley, now apparently running for president on the Republican ticket, was so frightened by the Treaty that, as ICAN reported, “on the first day of treaty negotiations, she hosted a press conference outside the room where negotiations were to take place, criticizing the pursuit of a prohibition treaty.”

Only July 7, 2017, following the Treaty’s adoption at the UN, representatives from the United States, United Kingdom and France put out a joint statement in which they declared, yes, you guessed it, that “Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.”

They also tried to make the argument that the TPNW was somehow a threat to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970, and which contains a clause — Article VI — requiring nuclear nations to disarm, something they have patently failed to do.

“The  NPT has many problems, but the TPNW is not one of them,” Kmnett said. Indeed, he argued that the openness of the TPNW process “puts to rest the offensive and political accusations that it is in competition with the NPT and a secret plan to undermine the NPT.” The treaty continues to collect ratifications after reaching the requisite 50 and entering into force on January 22, 2021. (The count at press time stood at 92 signatories and 68 states parties.)

So what is left to do, other than continue to collect ratifications?

“Going forward, we are establishing working groups on how to implement the Treaty,” Kmentt said. A scientific advisory group is being established. A second Meeting of States Parties will be held at the UN in New York City later this year, from November 27 to December 1.

With the ever-present threat of the Russian war against Ukraine escalating to the use of nuclear weapons, the message and existence of the TPNW has never been more important. The war has generated “conversations that normalize nuclear weapons,” observed Kmentt. “Tactical nuclear weapons are talked about as if they are small. That is worrying.” The threat level is the highest it has been, possibly ever, if we go by the current setting of the Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest since the clock first started telling Armageddon time in 1947.

“The threat of miscalculation and accident is higher than at the peak of the Cold War,” said Kmentt, noting the continued nuclear bellicosity coming out of North Korea, the shift in South Korea now speaking openly about nuclear weapons, China’s rapid escalation of its nuclear arsenal and the perpetual tensions between nuclear-armed enemies, India and Pakistan. Any of these hot spots, said Kmentt, “could escalate to a nuclear conflict.”

But with the TPNW, there has been a notable shift away from acceptance of nuclear weapons as necessary or inevitable. “If nuclear weapons are used, there will be an international outcry,” said Kmentt. We would see such an unprecedented response — “the strongest ever — including from countries that rely on nuclear weapons.”

There just have to be people left on Earth to cry out, which would be infinitely better if done before nuclear weapons are ever used.

This first appeared on Beyond Nuclear International.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.