A more competitive international environment, and in particular Russia’s assertive policies, have sparked renewed interest in the concept of nuclear deterrence as part of NATO’s approach to security. This has manifested itself in devoting greater attention to Russia’s nuclear policy and posture as well as to NATO’s own nuclear arrangements, and in a stronger emphasis on nuclear deterrence in public statements. However, this renaissance of nuclear deterrence takes place against the backdrop of new developments that seek to challenge the military rationale and moral legitimacy of that very concept. Put differently, just as nuclear deterrence is again becoming more important, it is also becoming more contested.
Over recent years, a somewhat geeky debate has emerged among the exponents of deterrence and assurance. Although the discussion typically occurs between Americans and nationals of an allied country, it’s overly simplistic to describe it as one between the US and its allies—the divisions aren’t that clear-cut.
The debate is part philosophical and part phraseological. At its core sits a single adjective. Some Americans (including policymakers) say that what the US offers its allies is ‘extended deterrence’. But a number of allied nationals (again, including policymakers) find the phrase underwhelming; they’d prefer that it read ‘extended nuclear deterrence’. And so we come directly to the crux of the argument: the presence or absence of the word ‘nuclear’ in the assurance that the US provides to its allies.
The U.S. ambassador to NATO has, when one thinks about it, just one job. No matter who holds the job, the U.S. ambassador to NATO has many priorities, as one would expect for a role that involves dealing with dozens of countries and trying to get them to agree on a coherent defense policy. But one would think that not provoking a nuclear war with Russia would be at the very top of the ambassador’s list of priorities. This seems like a no-brainer, but it helps to focus on the simple things. The United States has a special obligation to be the “adult in the room” and to keep the alliance focused on constructive responses to collective threats.
This graphic shows the number of nuclear warheads owned by each country known to have nuclear weapons. For more on trends in nuclear arms control, see Oliver Thränert’s recent addition to the CSS Analyses in Security Policy series here. For more CSS charts, maps and graphics on proliferation, click here.