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Deterrence Theory

Avoiding Mutually Assured Destruction

What does it mean when it is said that nuclear weapons are weapons of deterrence? What are the challenges to this theory?

During the post-World War II international system the world witnessed the cold-war tussle between the US and the Soviet Union, as the communist state made a giant leap towards becoming a superpower through its capable nuclear arsenal. The two superpowers came close to nuclear warfare, and close circumstances culminated into the Cuban Missile Crisis which was subsequently defused but left much of the world hanging on tenterhooks. In the decades that have passed since then, many of the other great world powers have acquired nuclear armaments. One of the prevailing lines of thought regarding the absence of any nuclear missile exchanges, or for that matter large scale war or conflict, is that nuclear weapons serve as a deterrence to countries, and their allies, that are equipped with them.

Deterrence can be seen as a tactic designed at serving a state or actor’s interests and secondly, as a purposeful response to a perceived threat. It can also be viewed as the process of compelling state actors to take actions they would not otherwise take. There is an obvious psychological component to the concept of deterrence. Countries become cognizant of the real consequences of potentially devastating nuclear exchanges. Not only is the safety, and self-preservation of an entire nation a wager for war, but the collective security of bordering nations and aligned nations is at stake. Thus, the concept of nuclear acquirement as the basis for deterrence between nuclear capable countries is counter-intuitive. The acquirement of nuclear capabilities by several countries can be viewed as creating, contrary to common-logic, stability and a balance of power. Countries in mutual pacts of allegiance will all be confronted with war, and possibly nuclear war, in the event of an attack. Many of these alliances are established with the view that an attack on one country is in fact an attack on all. This adds to the deterrence factor greatly. In the event that a member of NATO is attacked, all the allied countries will be obliged to intervene, creating an international morass. As a myriad of threats, pressures and tensions are brought to bear on the international system, the theory continues to hold sway. Deterrence theory presupposes that state actors are rational and will avoid a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Proponents of Deterrence Theory highlight the Cold War as examples of the heavy-handed role of the theory in practice. Further, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a scenario in which actors act rationally in their own best interests yet produce an irrational result, supports Deterrence Theory. As both countries build their arsenals, they are acting rationally and both win separately, yet the upshot may be considered to be irrational.

One of the chief challenges to the idea of deterrence through the acquirement of nuclear weaponry by more states is that one, or both, of the state actors involved are not rational. If even one of the countries acts unreasonably by taking action or by taking greater risks with their nuclear weaponry, a precarious situation- or a international political powder-keg- will set off a chain of events. Although some political scientists regularly employ Deterrence Theory to the Cold War, opponents of this view characteristically describe the tense moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis and how many of the sequence of events occurred because of a continued build-up in arsenals. The denouement to the short chronicle was marked by miscommunication and over-responsiveness on behalf of leaders of both countries. Still, this incident can repeat itself if communications between countries are hampered or tampered with.

Another stumbling block with opponents of Deterrence Theory is that it permits the build-up of arsenals in the hopes that doing so will eventually cause one of the two parties to stop the strengthening of armaments. However, the Security Dilemma challenges this notion by stating that an attempt to increase one’s security actually creates more fear in others. The dilemma poses the problem of two countries forced into stacking up their war-chests and, reluctantly, accepting to engage in war although it may have never been foreseen, planned or wanted. The failures of communication and misperceptions of the actions of the “other” state can spark a disastrous situation in many cases.

There are other issues with using deterrence as a mechanism to prevent nuclear warfare. It is difficult to prevent non-state actors from becoming nuclear-capable. It becomes obvious that as stock-piles increase the probability of a nuclear weapon getting into the hands of non-state actors, such as terrorists increases as well. To this day many still underestimate the security of veiled nuclear stockpiles hidden in the mountains of present-day Ukraine and Russia. Similarly, reason would make one assume that as the number of nuclear weapons become available to countries, the likelihood of one being used against another country increases. These are both minutiae that the Prisoner Dilemma takes into consideration.

Many will continue to maintain that the two-time use of nuclear weapons, is a fait accompli, a clear sign that the deterrence factor of nuclear weapons. These political scientists point to the fact that the only time nukes were ever used was during WWII when only one country had them and no direct contention prevented their use. As more countries have gained nuclear arsenals and as relations have remained relatively calm Deterrence Theorists will continue to use this same argument.

How has war and security changed in post-modernity?

Since the end of the 50’s a new era in the modern timeline has marked drastic changes in the evolution of armed conflict, war, and the heightened threats to global security. Post-modernism has ushered in new approaches and innovative strategies in dealing with threats to peace and security. In the wake of modernity, countries have advanced their weaponry, modernizing their armies to prepare for unforeseen threats to the overall amity and good relations of the West, often from fear of terrorist activity. These countries have called for a sense of security, or freedom from perceived threats, as well as a balance of power in alliances and weaponry.

War is colloquially defined as a conflict between two nation-states and more specifically the act of force between states intended to compel opponents to fulfill a certain political, economic or social will. Violence often characterizes war, but war is not contingent upon violence. Wars, such as the Cold War, have been “fought” between state-actors through means of intimidation and political pressures without there ever being an exchange of gunfire, but rather only an exchange of words. In post-modernity war has taken on a stricter meaning with the Correlates of War (COW) including 1,000 battle deaths for every year that fighting persists. Additionally, government in this new era, may only be one of the parties involved. In today’s world, the belligerents can include first world countries or third-world clans. This may be one of the most significant distinctions of post-modernity; that states are no longer the primary actors, and that NGO’s, the media, non-state actors, ethnic groups, and individuals have increased their roles.

The post-modern world has seen an increased role of non-state actors as players in the international arena. Institutions such as NATO, the United Nations, the European Union, and the African Union have all had a hand in helping determine the international policies of certain countries. These international establishments also have allowed for dialogues to exist over disputes and other disagreements. The belligerents of conflicts around the world are brought together to discuss agreements or in many cases, to simply mitigate rising tensions. These institutions have promoted a balance of power and have worked towards creating peace globally, frequently through the development of international law or guidelines. Their means of promoting peace and deterring aggressive nations have changed over the years. Much stock is put into the idea of placing economic pressures on hostile countries, such in the form of sanctions. One such current example includes North Korea which has defied many international agreements by firing missiles and have now been burdened with sanctions. In addition, many of the regional blocs have pushed for regional stability and security, putting together many nations under one umbrella of safety.

Traditionally war has focused on territorial integrity and religious distinctions. Of course, religious dissimilarities may not be the ultimate cause of war in the post-modern era, but may very well still factor into the causes behind war in the post-modern age. Other root causes of post-modern war include differences in political ideologies, nationalist tensions, and the increased intensity of ethnic identity in regions of the world. Terrorists that hail from countries all over the world have pushed to raise their political ambitions and ends.

Technology has proved to be advantageous for the belligerents of war and the initiators of terror. Terrorists have been abetted through the use of even the simplest technologies such as cell-phones, laptops, and the internet, which allow for the dissemination of information as well as the creation of web-networks that are increasingly hard to combat and ward off. The most useful tool for terrorists is often the one that provides them with the most information. Just as how technology has been a boon for terrorists, new gadgets, military hardware, and enhanced weaponry and arms have come to the aid of states that can afford the military spending. Technology may be one of the most influencing determinants of war and has drastically redrawn the strategies and tactics for war. Soldiers of developed countries are often replaced by manned drones or vehicles or well equipped with long-distance rifles and heavy bullet-proof vests capable of withstanding grenade attacks, to prevent large loss of life. Lastly, there has also been a revolution in military affairs (RMA) in the post-modern era. The outsourcing of war has created vast markets for expert mercenaries as well as for efficient technologies.

While war may seem to have the potential to be much more disastrous than in previous centuries, experts are quick to point out the efficiencies of post-modern warfare and relatively low death count for the past decades’ wars. The replacement of trench-warfare, bayonet combat-fighting, and mustard gas with modified guns and hand-operated drones have become more economical and effective and result in less close-quarter fighting. However the greatest change in this new period has been in technologies, intelligence and communications, and the new institutions and balances of power that have all changed the dynamics of war and security in a post-modern world.


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