Nuclear Deterrence Failure: The Economic, Environmental, and Health Consequences

News | March 15, 2011

On 24 February 2011, the EastWest Institute held an off-the-record round-table discussion, “Nuclear Deterrence Failure: The Economic, Environmental, and Health Consequences,” with Commander Robert D. Green, Royal Navy (Retired), Co-director of the Peace Foundation’s Disarmament & Security Centre. The discussion brought together leading experts and diplomats to discuss the credibility of nuclear deterrence in national and international security doctrines in the current security environment. For a copy of Commander Green’s remarks, click here.

Commander Green argued that the consequences of nuclear deterrence failure – causing the detonation of even only one nuclear weapon – are catastrophic. Highlighting the potential economic, environmental, and health ramifications, he questioned why most adherents to deterrence doctrines fail to discuss or acknowledge the likely catastrophic aftermath of its failure. Commander Green also stated that nuclear deterrence is not currently, and has never been, a credible doctrine for maintaining stability in the international order. Threats such as terrorism and cyber attacks, by their very nature, cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons. Also, deterrence is not a viable solution to security threats stemming from the proliferation of nuclear weapons, technology, and material to new states, because the states seeking to develop nuclear weapon programs are unpredictable, often paranoid regimes that cannot be governed by rules of deterrence. Nuclear deterrence actually destabilizes political relationships by promoting hostility, mistrust, and arms racing.

In lieu of dangerous and ineffective deterrence doctrines, Commander Green argued that there are a number of non-nuclear security strategies that are safer, more cost-effective, human, moral, and lawful, as outlined in his 2010 book Security Without Nuclear Deterrence.

Jonathan Granoff, acting as a discussant, responded that it necessary to review the substantive arguments in favor of deterrence and the inclusion, without argument, of the doctrine in the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. He stated that arguments in favor of deterrence are circular because they require the existence of multiple nuclear weapon states that are ready and willing-to-use weapons.  Arguments in favor of deterrence either encourage proliferation to states that feel threatened by existing arsenals or promote the ever-spreading nuclear umbrella as a means to combat those proliferation incentives.

The discussion addressed a number of questions including:

  • Why is it difficult to reevaluate doctrines of nuclear deterrence in the political arena?
  • Was the doctrine of nuclear deterrence actually responsible for maintaining stability during the Cold War? Or were the risks of deterrence more destabilizing towards relations?
  •  Given the current security environment, which is characterized by a plethora of new emerging actors and new forms of threats, what role do nuclear weapons have in today’s world?
  • Has deterrence stimulated nuclear proliferation around the world?
  • What are alternative viable options to old and new security concerns besides nuclear deterrence?

The discussion concluded with recommendations for practical next steps to delegitimize nuclear deterrence in national and international security doctrines, as well as reframe the mindset upholding the value of nuclear weapons:

  • Policy makers should convene a series of talks to rebuild a security framework without nuclear weapons, and thus give military planners a reassurance and sense of security in a nuclear weapons free-world.
  • Outlining the numerous non-nuclear security strategies, which are safer and more cost effective, is a necessary a step to help shift the mindset towards new forms of security and stability.
  • Convincing NATO to eliminate their nuclear weapons capabilities and develop a non-nuclear weapons strategy is crucial to delegitimizing nuclear weapons.
  • Key actors should cooperatively persuade states under umbrellas of nuclear deterrence, in order to understand and articulate that the costs of that security umbrella far outweigh the benefits. Such a step is critical to eliminating nuclear umbrellas altogether, which in turn would facilitate further progress towards a world free of nuclear weapons.
  • States such as China, Pakistan, and India have expressed interest in a Nuclear Weapons Convention. These states can act as thought leaders to also initiate talks on nuclear deterrence failure.
  • Bilateral and multilateral relationships should be reevaluated to promote reassurance instead of deterrence. Such an emphasis on positive reassurance doctrines will lead to less threatening behavior and more international cooperative action.