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nuclear deterrence - adarsh badri

Nuclear Deterrence and Debunking its Logical Explanation

“There was a flash from the indoor wires as if lightning had struck. I didn’t hear any sound; how shall I say, the world around me turned bright white.”

Then the dazzling magnesium light appeared—like a million cameras flashing at once. A moment later, followed the boom, which felt like “hundreds of needles stabbing me all at once.”

Then, the complete darkness.

Photographer Yoshito Matsushige, a survivor of the Hiroshima explosion and the first to capture the horrific destruction, recounts.

On August 6, 1945, at about eight o’clock, an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, a second bomb exploded in Nagasaki.

The destruction mated by the atomic bomb was straight out of an apocalyptical movie, except it was real. It caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries, and their effects lasted for generations.

nuclear deterrence
A mockup of the Fat Man nuclear device. | Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Its perpetrator, the United States, used it as grounds to end the Second World War. However, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became symbols of what nuclear weapons can do to us—human civilization. Despite this, the states were nevertheless able to acquire nuclear weapons technology.

The Soviet Union conducted the first nuclear test four years after the first atomic explosion. Then came the United Kingdom in 1952, France in 1960, and China in 1964. Decades into the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the two non-signatory states, India and Pakistan, acquired nuclear weapons in 1998.

Israel is also said to have nuclear weapons. North Korea demonstrated its nuclear capability with its first underground test in 2006.

Scholars have recently advocated for the proliferation of nuclear weapon states, usually as a deterrence strategy against the “evil” other. Since the Russia-Ukraine crisis, realist scholars and security experts have taken a greater interest in this line of argumentation.

In one such writing, published in the National Interest, the authors made a case for the nuclear armament of the East Asian States, particularly South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.

They argue that such armament accomplishes two goals:

First, it allows for a domestic, independent deterrence mechanism against the rising threat of China and North Korea; and

Second, it eases the burden of the United States to fulfil its commitment to provide security for these countries in the event of a full-scale conflict—an offshoot of offshore balancing logic advanced by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

The obvious question is, why is there so much clamour around nuclear proliferation?

One of the starting points for discussions around nuclear weapons is that Ukraine had agreed to remove the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union, which were stationed on its territory in December 1991. After the United States and Russia, Ukraine had the third-largest nuclear arsenal at the time, with about 5,000 bombs.

This choice to hand over its nuclear arsenal to Russia has been hotly debated against the backdrop of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In a 1993 article published in Foreign Affairs, John J. Mearsheimer, a renowned scholar on international affairs, suggested that Ukraine should keep its nuclear weapons.

He noted that nuclear weapons would be “imperative” for Ukraine to live peacefully beside Russia, “the state it fears most”. Today, there is a consensus among academics, policymakers, and the general public about the Ukrainian disarmament debacle and its resultant Russian invasion of Ukraine.

So, what do scholars mean when they say nuclear weapons foster peace?

The realist school of IR, which premises on a murkier outlook of the anarchic nature of the international system, provides a logical extension to the argument of nuclear proliferation. To them, nuclear proliferation leads to a peaceful world.

Early in 1981, Kenneth N. Waltz, in the famous Adelphi Papers, noted that the spread of nuclear weapons is “the more, the merrier”. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Waltz argued that nuclear weapons “deter” and cause peace instead of war.

Nuclear proliferation sustains the logic of deterrence—a state’s ability to discourage hostile action by another state through the fear of retribution. Deterrence logic tells us that a state must only acquire nuclear weapons to avert large-scale conflicts.

The argument goes further—nuclear weapons have deterred the states from engaging in world war-like conflicts since 1945.

However, the deterrence logic merely leads one to sustain in the Hobbesian state of nature, where fear and the constant danger of violence permeate the international society. The constructivist school of IR provides a plausible explanation for the long “peace” in nuclear weapons, which attributes a negative “normative” value to nuclear weapons.

Contra Waltzian realists’ deterrence logic, Nina Tannenwald argues that the “nuclear taboo” is an essential element in “explaining” the history of the non-use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear taboo, for Tannenwald, has delegitimised the weapons of mass destruction, thereby affecting their non-use.

Despite the looming literature on nuclear taboo, it is essential to critique the deterrence logic on its merits.

nuclear deterrence logic
DF-41, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, are seen during a parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. (AFP/Greg Baker)

In that regard, one may ask, does the nuclear deterrence logic hold when we have a “the more, the merrier”-like situation?

This essay shows that the deterrence logic fails on four counts. While the realist logic can explain nuclear proliferation, I argue it cannot reasonably explain that proliferation would cause deterrence and, thereby, non-use.

The propensity argument.

First, the states that comprise the international system have different social structures, belief systems, and modes of government. Each state has a varied political culture—an enmeshing of citizens’ attitudes, beliefs, and sentiments towards their government.

Every state in the world system has its propensity to absorb risk. There exists an intersubjective understanding of the point of conflict. While some states may consider a specific condition/situation a potential nuclear flashpoint, others may not.

Therefore, when more states have nuclear weapons, we cannot expect them to follow deterrence—for they may have different risk-absorbing propensities.

The rationality argument.

In the deterrence logic, there exists a rationality assumption. The argument goes nuclear weapons discipline states into behaving responsibly in the international system. Since deterrence sustains “mutually assured destruction”, the states will not engage in nuclear brinkmanship.

But history has told us time and again that political rulers (both democratic and non-democratic) have been less than rational (or highly irrational) in making decisions. Consider the German Kaiser Wilhelm II writing a comment on a cable and sending it to his ambassador to Russia: “For even if we are to be bled to death, at least England shall lose India.”

Alas! Germany was destroyed, but England held onto India until the end of World War II. More recently, declassified documents have indicated that the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was much more dangerous than anyone could have imagined.

The “whose security?” argument.

Secondly, the deterrence argument contends that nuclear weapons support state survival. Here, we must ask: What does it mean to say state survival? Do we refer to the survival of a state in terms of a regime? Or people’s survival? Or do we refer to state survival at the expense of the people?

The realist school of international politics has given states the highest priority, to the point that it justifies all states at the expense of oppression and violence against their people. When discussing security, the Copenhagen School of Security Studies and the human security perspective have moved beyond the realm of the state.

The often-overlooked security actors, such as individuals and social groups, are presented as being at the forefront of security when these scholars ask “whose security” matters. In addition to military security, they consider political, economic, societal and environmental security as part of a state’s overall security architecture.

Such a holistic approach to human-centred security can push us to rethink nuclear proliferation.  The destruction brought by dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 should remind us of what nuclear weapons can do to our world.

The non-state actor argument.

Since the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, a new threat has assumed centre stage in the security paradigm. Against this backdrop, nuclear terrorism can become a significant concern for the international community with proliferation.

Driven by fundamentalist ideas, these terror groups would have no problem using them. Terrorist entities like Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Boko Haram in Nigeria and other African states, among others, have been operating since the 1990s.

While some terror organisations directly control the whole of the country (like the Taliban in Afghanistan), others run (like Boko Haram in parts of West Africa) a shadow state.

Non-state actors like terror groups are more likely to acquire nuclear technology and create deadly weapons in the event of nuclear proliferation. Unlike nation-states whose ultimate goal is survival, these terrorist groups’ objective revolves around destroying the supposed enemy.

Nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist groups can be lethal. Such a future would be devastating. Moreover, nuclear proliferation risks technological transfer from nuclear states to non-state actors, leaving them vulnerable to theft and misuse.

One example could be the Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was accused of selling centrifuge technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Therefore, blocking all possible pathways for terrorist groups’ acquisition of nuclear weapons—the technology/weapons transfer from the nuclear-weapon state—is imperative for the survival of humanity.

nuclear deterrence
Cartoon depicting North Korea and the United States in nuclear disarmament dilemmas. (cartoon from: Outside the Beltway)

In each of these situations, deterrence fails. I argue that nuclear weapons are more likely to be used as more states obtain them. Therefore, as the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon would say: “Our nuclear fatalism must end”.

The recently concluded treaty on the prohibition on nuclear weapons—a multilateral effort to ban the development, testing, production, acquisition, stockpiling, using or threatening to use the weapons—is the affirmation that nuclear proliferation is not a way forward.

Even though the 2020 treaty was not signed or ratified by the world’s nine nuclear weapon states, it shows the commitment of the rest of the world that proliferation is not the way forward. In the event of proliferation—the more states with nuclear weapons—there is a greater risk of escalation, intimidation, and impending fear in the international system.

Moreover, discussing nuclear proliferation would be counterproductive—or maybe downright dangerous—when the world strides toward nuclear disarmament. So far, we have been fortunate with nuclear weapons, but if they continue to be increased, there will eventually be a “doomsday clock”-like calamity.

Photo by Kilian Karger on Unsplash


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