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.
Thirty years ago, when the Berlin Wall was brought down marking the end of the Cold War, the threat of conflict between two nuclear-armed, ideologically opposed superpowers receded, and my generation, which had grown up in the shadow of the bomb, breathed a sigh of relief. Although the nuclear threat did not vanish then, it certainly became subdued as the process of disarmament and control seemed to move forward along a clear path of no return.
Today is the JCPOA’s third birthday – will it have another one?
Three years ago, Iran and global powers implemented the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), curtailing the country’s nuclear weapons programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The deal continues to hang together – but only just. There are growing indications of signatory states’ fatigue and frustration in attempting to prevent the collapse of the JCPOA, following the US withdrawal from it last May. In this climate, it is important for the deal’s stakeholders to remember why it remains valuable:
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.
This graphic provides an overview of estimated global nuclear warhead inventories from 1945 to 2017. To find out more about the Trump administration’s ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ and what it means for US nuclear policy, see Oliver Thränert ‘s recent addition to the CSS’ Analyses in Security Policy series here. For more CSS charts and graphs on proliferation, click here.