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Flaws in the Concept of Nuclear Deterrance

ARTICLE | | BY John Scales Avery


John Scales Avery

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The concept of nuclear deterrence is seriously flawed, and it violates the fundamental ethical principles of all major religions. Besides being morally unacceptable, nuclear weapons are also illegal according to a historic 1996 decision of the International Court of Justice, a ruling that reflects the opinion of the vast majority of the worldʼs peoples. Even a small nuclear war  would be  an  ecological catastrophe,  not only killing civilian populations indiscriminately in both belligerent and neutral countries, but also severely damaging global agriculture and making large areas of the earth permanently uninhabitable through radioactive contamination. The danger of accidental nuclear war continues to be very great today, and the danger of nuclear terrorism is increasing. In this perilous situation, it is necessary for the nuclear nations to acknowledge that the concept of deterrence has been a mistake, which is threatening the lives of all human beings as well as threatening devastation of the biosphere. Acknowledging that the policy of nuclear deterrence has been a grave error can reduce risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Before discussing other defects in the concept of deterrence, it must be said very clearly that the idea of “massive nuclear retaliation” is completely unacceptable from an ethical point of view. The doctrine of retaliation, performed on a massive scale, violates not only the principles of common human decency and common sense, but also the ethical principles of every major religion. Retaliation is especially contrary to the central commandment of Chris- tianity which tells us to love our neighbor, even if he or she is far away from us, belonging to a different ethnic or political group, and even if our distant neighbor has seriously injured us. This principle has a fundamental place not only in Christianity but also in all other major reli- gions. “Massive retaliation” completely violates these very central ethical principles, which are not only clearly stated and fundamental but are also very practical, since they prevent escalatory cycles of revenge and counter-revenge.

Contrast Christian ethics with estimates of the number of deaths that would follow a US nuclear strike against Russia: Several hundred million deaths. These horrifying estimates shock us not only because of the enormous magnitude of the expected mortality, but also because the victims would include people of every kind: women, men, old people, children and infants, completely irrespective of any degree of guilt that they might have. As a result of such an attack, many millions of people in neutral countries would also die. This type of killing has to be classified as genocide.

When a suspected criminal is tried for a wrongdoing, great efforts are devoted to clarifying the question of guilt or innocence. Punishment only follows if guilt can be proved beyond any reasonable doubt. Contrast this with the totally indiscriminate mass slaughter that results from a nuclear attack!

 It might be objected that disregard for the guilt or innocence of victims is a universal characteristic of modern war, since statistics show that, with time, a larger and larger percentage of the victims have been civilians, especially children. For example, the air attacks on Coventry during World War II, or the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, produced massive casualties which involved all segments of the population with complete disregard for the question of guilt or innocence. The answer, I think, is that modern war has become generally unacceptable from an ethical point of view, and this unacceptability is epitomized in nuclear weapons.

The enormous and indiscriminate destruction produced by nuclear weapons formed the background for a historic 1996 decision by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In response to questions put to it by WHO and the UN General Assembly, the Court ruled that “the threat and use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and particularly the principles and rules of humanitarian law”. The only possible exception to this general rule might be “an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a state would be at stake”. But the Court refused to say that even in this extreme circumstance the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be legal. It left the exceptional case undecided. In addition, the World Court added unanimously that “there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion, negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict international control”.

“The concept of nuclear deterrence is not only unacceptable from the standpoint of ethics; it is also contrary to international law. Although no formal plebiscite has been taken, the votes in numerous resolutions of the UN General Assembly speak very clearly on this question.”

This landmark decision has been criticized by the nuclear weapon states as being decided “by a narrow margin”, but the structuring of the vote made the margin seem more narrow than it actually was. Seven judges voted against Paragraph 2E of the decision (the paragraph which states that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be generally illegal, but mentions as a possible exception the case where a nation might be defending itself from an attack that threatened its very existence). Seven judges voted for the paragraph, with the President of the Court, Mohammad Bedjaoui of Algeria casting the deciding vote. Thus the Court adopted it, seemingly by a narrow margin.   But three of the judges who voted against 2E did so because they believed that no possible exception should be mentioned! Thus, if the vote had been slightly differently structured, the result would have been ten to four.

Of the remaining four judges who cast dissenting votes, three represented nuclear weapons states, while the fourth thought that the Court ought not to have accepted the questions from WHO and the UN. However, Judge Schwebel from the United States, who voted against Paragraph 2E, added in a separate opinion, “It cannot be accepted that the use of nuclear weapons on a scale which would − or could − result in the deaths of many millions in  indiscriminate  inferno  and  by  far-reaching  fallout, have pernicious effects in space and time, and render uninhabitable much of the earth, could be lawful”. Judge Higgins from the UK, the first woman judge in the history of the Court, had problems with the word “generally” in Paragraph 2E and therefore voted against it, but she thought that a more profound analysis might have led the Court to conclude in favor of illegality in all circumstances. Judge Fleischhauer of Germany said in his separate opinion, “The nuclear weapon is, in many ways, the negation of the humanitarian considerations underlying the law applicable in armed conflict and the principle of neutrality. The nuclear weapon cannot distinguish between civilian and military targets. It causes immeasurable suffering. The radiation released by it is unable to respect the territorial integrity of neutral States”.

President Bedjaoui, summarizing the majority opinion, called nuclear weapons “the ultimate evil”, and said “By its nature, the nuclear weapon, this blind weapon, destabilizes humanitarian law, the law of discrimination in the use of weapons... The ultimate aim of every action in the field of nuclear arms will always be nuclear disarmament, an aim which is no longer utopian and which all have a duty to pursue more actively than ever”.

Thus the concept of nuclear deterrence is not only unacceptable from the standpoint of ethics, it is also contrary to international law. The World Court’s 1996 advisory opinion unquestionably also represents the opinion of the majority of the world’s peoples. Although no formal plebiscite has been taken, the votes in numerous resolutions of the UN General Assembly speak very clearly on this question. For example, the New Agenda Resolution (53/77Y) was adopted by the General Assembly on 4 December 1998 by a massively affirmative vote, in which only 18 out of the 170 member states voted against the resolution.* The New Agenda Resolution proposes numerous practical steps towards complete nuclear disarmament, and it calls on the Nuclear-Weapon States “to demonstrate an unequivocal commitment to the speedy and total elimination of their nuclear weapons and without delay to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to the elimination of these weapons, thereby fulfilling their obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non- Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)”. Thus, in addition to being ethically unacceptable and contrary to international law, nuclear weapons are also contrary to the principles of democracy.

Having said these important things, we can now turn to some of the other defects in the concept of nuclear deterrence. One important defect is that nuclear war may occur through accident or miscalculation − through technical defects or human failings. This possibility is made greater by the fact that despite the end of the Cold War, thousands of missiles carrying nuclear warheads are still kept on a “hair-trigger” state of alert with a quasi-automatic reaction time measured in minutes. There is a constant danger that a nuclear war will be triggered by an error in evaluating the signal on a radar screen. For example, the BBC reported recently that a group of scientists and military leaders are worried that a small asteroid entering the earth’s atmosphere and exploding could trigger a nuclear war if mistaken for a missile strike.

*  Of  the 18 countries that voted against the New Agenda resolution, 10 were  Eastern European countries hoping for  acceptance into NATO, whose votes seem  to have been traded for increased probability  of acceptance.

A number of prominent political and military figures (many of whom have ample knowledge of the system of deterrence, having been part of it) have expressed concern about the danger of accidental nuclear war. Colin S. Gray, Chairman, National Institute for Public Policy, expressed this concern as follows: “The problem, indeed the enduring problem, is that we are resting our future upon a nuclear deterrence system concerning which we cannot tolerate even a single malfunction”. General Curtis E. LeMay, Founder and former Commander in Chief of the United States Strategic Air Command, has written, “In my opinion a general war will grow through a series of political miscalculations and accidents rather   than   through   any deliberate attack   by either   side”. Bruce G. Blair (Brookings Institute) has remarked that “It is obvious that the rushed nature of the process, from warning to decision to action, risks causing a catastrophic mistake”... “This system is an accident waiting to happen.”

“But nobody can predict that the fatal accident or unauthorized act will never happen,” Fred Iklé of the Rand Corporation has written, “Given the huge and far-flung missile forces, ready to be launched from land and sea on both sides,  the scope for disaster by accident is immense... In a matter of seconds − through technical accident or human failure − mutual deterrence might thus collapse.”

Another serious failure of the concept of nuclear deterrence is that it does not take into account the possibility that atomic bombs may be used by terrorists. Indeed, the threat of nuclear terrorism has today become one of the most pressing dangers that the world faces, a danger that is particularly acute in the United States.

Since 1945, more than 3,000 metric tons (3,000,000 kilograms) of highly enriched uranium and plutonium have been produced − enough for several hundred thousand nuclear weapons. Of this, roughly a million kilograms are in Russia, inadequately guarded, in establishments where the technicians are poorly paid and vulnerable to the temptations of bribery. There is a continuing danger that these fissile materials will fall into the hands of terrorists, or organized criminals, or irresponsible governments. Also, an extensive black market for fissile materials, nuclear weapons components etc. has recently been revealed in connection with the confessions of Pakistan’s bomb-maker, Dr. A.Q. Khan. Furthermore, if Pakistan’s less-than-stable government should be overthrown, complete nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.

On November 3, 2003, Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, made a speech to the United Nations in which he called for “limiting the processing of weapons-usable material (separated plutonium and high enriched uranium) in civilian nuclear programmes − as well as the production of new material through reprocessing and enrichment − by agreeing to restrict these operations to facilities exclusively under international control.” It is almost incredible, considering the dangers of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, that such restrictions were not imposed long ago. Nuclear reactors used for “peaceful” purposes unfortunately also generate fissionable isotopes of plutonium, neptunium and americium. Thus, all nuclear reactors must be regarded as ambiguous in function, and all must be put under strict international control. One might ask, in fact, whether globally widespread use of nuclear energy is worth the danger that it entails.

Figure 1: Recent studies by atmospheric scientists have shown that the smoke from burning cities produced by even a limited nuclear war would have a devastating effect on global agriculture. The studies show that the smoke would rise to the stratosphere, where it would spread globally and remain for a decade, blocking sunlight and destroying the ozone layer. Because of the devastating effect on global agriculture, darkness from even a small nuclear war (e.g. between India and Pakistan) would result in an estimated billion deaths from famine. Nuclear darkness resulting from a large-scale war involving all of the nuclear weapons that are now on high alert status would destroy all agriculture on earth for a period of ten years, and almost all humans would die of starvation. (See O. Toon, A. Robock, and R. Turco, “The Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War”, Physics Today, vol. 61, No. 12, 2008, p. 37-42).

The Italian nuclear physicist Francesco Calogero, who has studied the matter closely, believes that terrorists could easily construct a simple gun-type nuclear bomb if they were in possession of a critical mass of highly enriched uranium. In such a simple atomic bomb, two grapefruit-sized sub-critical portions of HEU are placed at opposite ends of the barrel of an artillery piece and are driven together by means of a conventional explosive. Prof. Calogero estimates that the fatalities produced by the explosion of such a device in the center of a large city could exceed 100,000.

“It is time for civil society to make its will felt. If our leaders continue to enthusiastically support the institution of war, if they will not abolish nuclear weapons, then let us have new leaders.”

We must remember the remark of U.N. Secretary General  Kofi Annan  after  the  9/11/2001  attacks  on  the World Trade Center. He said, “This time it was not a nuclear explosion”. The meaning of his remark is clear: If the world does not take strong steps to eliminate fissionable materials and  nuclear  weapons,  it  will  only  be  a  matter  of  time before they will be used in terrorist attacks on major cities. Neither terrorists nor organized criminals can be deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation, since they have no territory against which such retaliation could be directed. They blend invisibly into the general population. Nor can a “missile defense system” prevent terrorists from using nuclear weapons, since the weapons can be brought into a port in any one of the hundreds of thousands of containers that enter on ships each year, a number far too large to be checked exhaustively.

“It is time for civil soci- ety to make its will felt. If our leaders continue to enthusiastically sup- port  the  institution  of war,  if   they  will  not abolish  nuclear weap- ons,  then  let  us  have new leaders.”

In this dangerous situation, the only logical thing for the world to do is to get rid of both fissile materials and nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible. We must acknowledge that the idea of nuclear deterrence is a dangerous fallacy, and that the development of military systems based on nuclear weapons has been a terrible mistake, a false step that needs to be reversed. If the most prestigious of the nuclear weapons states can sincerely acknowledge their mistakes and begin to reverse them, nuclear weapons will seem less glamorous to countries like India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, where they now are symbols of national pride and modernism.

Civilians have for too long played the role of passive targets, hostages in the power struggles of politicians. It is time for civil society to make its will felt. If our leaders continue to enthusiastically support the institution of war, if they will not abolish nuclear weapons, then let us have new leaders.

About the Author(s)

John Scales Avery

University of Copenhagen, Denmark;
Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science