Winter-safe Deterrence and the Problem of Hardware AND Software

In the article below Sascha Sauerteig provides his own perspectives on the the winter-safe deterrence debate, which is being hosted on The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists website, and which is introduced here.

In “Winter-safe Deterrence: The Risk of Nuclear Winter and Its Challenge to Deterrence,” Seth Baum reminds us of the immense threat that nuclear winter poses to human kind. In order to escape the risk of nuclear winter, Baum demands a drastic reduction of current nuclear weapon stocks down to a maximum of 50 nuclear weapons worldwide. In order to satisfy deterrence needs, he advocates “winter-safe” deterrence, i.e. deterrence with an alternative combination of predominantly WMD, such as non-contagious biological weapons or nuclear electromagnetic weapons, that decrease the risk of nuclear winter.

Baum’s well-founded call for drastic nuclear disarmament and his attempt to offer a pragmatic alternative to the status quo deserve appreciation, as his proposal takes global and national interests into consideration. Although I agree with Baum’s observation of the dangers of nuclear winter and his call for disarmament, the idea to replace nuclear deterrence with a combination of alternative WMD builds upon two mistakes. First, it underplays the inherent shortcomings of nuclear deterrence. Second, it undervalues the consequences of undermining existing international norms regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Similar to other conflict-related arguments in International Relations, such as democratic peace theory, nuclear deterrence offers three main dimensions of discussion: state, bilateral, and international. The state-related focus of nuclear deterrence refers to the immediate strategic considerations in a state pursuing nuclear weapons. It is usually argued that states build nuclear weapons to gain prestige, security, or power. The bilateral focus relates to the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons in bilateral relations. This branch of nuclear deterrence includes all arguments that claim that the reason the Cold War did not heat up was because of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons in the superpower stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. The international focus of nuclear deterrence examines the global dimension of nuclear weapons, including the prominent thought experiment elaborating the question “What would actually happen if more states develop nuclear weapons?” The most prominent contribution in this regard was made by Kenneth Waltz, who suggested that the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons might actually contribute to international stability.

There is no denying that political and military leaders take their interpretation of opponents’ military capacities into consideration before launching a strike. Nor would I doubt that the awareness of the destructive power of nuclear weapons or any other WMD might lead the same leaders to conclude that launching a first strike may be unwise. Yet, all three dimensions of nuclear deterrence offer significant logical shortcomings that culminate in an oversimplified and even utopian understanding of the world. Nuclear deterrence, by and large, rests on the assumption of well-informed, rational, and stable actors with an error-free chain of command presiding over safe, secure, and efficient weapons and delivery systems. Baum summarizes the underlying logic of a deterrent with “If you do X, then I will do Y.” Unfortunately, this causality has been confronted with significant limits in real life, making nuclear deterrence (or any WMD deterrence for that matter) an incredibly risky gamble.

Seth Baum himself points out that “[a] careful reading of history suggests that nuclear deterrence has already failed or almost failed several times.” A good illustration of critical incidents is the 2014 Chatham House Report ”Too Close for Comfort. Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy.” Several of the described incidents may have easily led to nuclear war – not just because of the hardware (i.e. nuclear weapons) but also because of the software (i.e. the underlying logic of nuclear deterrence). The analogy of hardware and software has been used before, but it is used here to underline my point that strategic mistakes and technical errors can escalate risks associated with the underlying logic of deterrence. Therefore, we should not just get rid of the hardware, but also the software. Rather than replacing nuclear deterrence with another form of WMD deterrence, we should not settle for anything less than an abandonment of the logic of WMD deterrence.

The risky gamble of the deterrence argument becomes even more apparent when looking at Baum’s proposal to find alternative weapons (predominantly WMD) to replace the huge stocks of nuclear weapons. Apart from threatening past achievements (such as the BWC) and possibly future agreements (such as a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East), (re)institutionalizing specific types of WMD (such as non-contagious biological weapons) runs the risk of blurring the WMD taboo. In fact, it even threatens the already questionable logic of WMD deterrence. This is because (re)establishing WMD would just add further ambiguity to decision making. Partially legitimizing specific WMD for deterrence runs the risk of adding further unmeasurable variables to the equation, making a peaceful stand-off between different powers much more difficult. This is why I believe that WMD should stay off the table for anyone.

In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist roundtable on this issue, Seth Baum says that he “would prefer that today’s nuclear-armed states simply decide that they no longer need deterrence based on the threat of massive destruction“ and I agree. Yet, I am afraid that if we aim for winter-safe deterrence, the alleged lesser evil compared to nuclear winter, we may actually be worse off than before. For one thing, because we may end up reintroducing WMD and continue to subscribe to past failures of the logic of WMD deterrence; but also because we are threatening the norm of the WMD taboo. Ridding the world from WMD hardware AND software is not an alternative option to protect human kind in the long run – it is the only option.

Sascha Sauerteig is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath. The title of his dissertation is “The Effectiveness of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime – A Historical Institutionalist Analysis.” His most recent publication is a co-authored chapter (together with Prof. David Galbreath) on regime complexity and security governance in the Handbook of Governance and Security (Ed. James Sperling, Edward Elgar, 2014).

Cover image shamelessly stolen from Kai Ilchman @ilchkai