By Michael Rühle

During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the famous US movie director Stanley Kubrick decided to move to Australia. He reckoned that in a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union the nuclear fallout would be least in “down under.”

H-bomb drops in final scenes of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove
H-bomb drops in final scenes of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove

However, when he learned that the bathroom of the ship’s cabin that he had booked was to be shared with the passengers of the adjacent cabin, he cancelled the trip. Given his fear of sharing a bathroom with strangers, nuclear deterrence suddenly seemed like the lesser evil.

Kubrick stayed in the US and processed his nuclear fears by making “Dr. Strangelove,” a cinematic masterpiece about the contradictions of nuclear deterrence.

Kubrick’s behavior may strike one as irrational, but nuclear weapons are paradoxical to begin with. Their destructive power makes their use potentially suicidal, yet it is precisely the fear of the potentially catastrophic consequences that moderates international relations.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that nuclear deterrence is re-entering the vocabulary of the western security debate. Against the backdrop of Russia’s high-testosterone nuclear rhetoric, North Korea’s nuclear grandstanding, and the specter of nuclear rivalries in Asia as well as the Middle East, a reaffirmation of nuclear deterrence as an important element of western security strategy was inevitable.

atomic bomb

Alas, reaffirming deterrence is easier said than done.

Since the end of the Cold War, interest in and understanding of nuclear deterrence atrophied. Worse, in trying to make the case for nuclear abolition, many analysts have sought to debunk nuclear deterrence as a “myth.”

The result is confusion: While some continue to argue that nuclear deterrence has no utility in today’s strategic environment, others embrace it as a panacea. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Nuclear deterrence remains a crucially important concept, yet for it to work as desired requires political and military leaders to also understand its limits. Three areas require particular attention: Interests, psychology, and knowledge about one’s adversary.

Interests. Perhaps the most common mistake in thinking about nuclear deterrence is the belief that the larger your nuclear arsenal, the more credible your deterrent. This is way too simplistic. Since a state will only take nuclear risks in defense of existential interests, an opponent may still resort to force if he concludes that the issue at stake is not existential to the defender.

That’s why allies of nuclear powers constantly need to be reassured by their protector that he considers their security a truly vital interest. Or, as former British Defense Secretary Denis Healy aptly noted, during the Cold War it took only 5% credibility to deter the Soviet Union but 95% to assure one’s allies.

War room in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove
War room in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove

Psychology. A stable deterrence regime requires all actors to adhere to a “rational” cost-benefit calculus. Thus, nuclear deterrence cannot work against actors that are “irrational” to begin with, e.g. suicidal fanatics.

Deterrence may also fail when rationality evaporates, for example, when ideological beliefs make certain leaders adopt risky offensive strategies.

However, the most likely scenario in which rationality could disappear is defensive. Since humans fear suffering losses more than they value gains, the fear of losing something valuable will make leaders take far greater risks than the opportunity of changing the status quo in their favor.

Hence, as much as one would want to have the upper hand in a crisis, one should still avoid pushing a nuclear adversary into a corner.

Culture. Deterrence may be a universal concept, but its practical application may well be culture-specific. For example, a culture which attaches great value to sacrifice or martyrdom will be much harder to deter by the prospect of military punishment than a “post-heroic” society. This is not to say that certain states cannot be deterred, yet their cost-benefit calculus might be so different as to render the defender’s deterrence message ineffective.

To ensure that an adversary understands one’s deterrence message, one needs to have a fairly good grasp of his “strategic culture”: historical experiences, values, core beliefs, and military traditions. Obtaining such a thorough understanding of one’s adversary is extremely difficult. But simply hoping that an impressive nuclear arsenal will deter just by its mere existence would be a dangerous gamble. In the deterrence business, ignorance isn’t bliss — it might well be fatal.

Michael Rühle heads the Energy Security Section of NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division. He expresses solely his personal views.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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