Nuclear deterrence

Enduring relevance but growing need for re-evaluation

Authored by: Chris Hobbs , Matthew Harries

Handbook of Nuclear Proliferation

Print publication date:  December  2011
Online publication date:  February  2012

Print ISBN: 9781857436044
eBook ISBN: 9780203840849
Adobe ISBN:


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For more than 60 years nuclear weapons have been the dominant feature of great power relations, and of the security strategies of possessor states. While they have not been used in conflict since 1945, they are nevertheless seen as important political, and arguably even military, tools through which states can exert influence and guarantee their security. Proponents of nuclear weapons have long argued that they have the unique ability to provide stability between nuclear rivals and within regions with histories of instability. This property stems from deterrence: the strategy of persuading adversaries to refrain from aggression for fear of suffering unacceptable damage in response. Deterrence was elaborated during the Cold War beyond this basic insight into a complex framework of theories relating adversaries’ nuclear arsenals to one another, exploring hypothetical scenarios of conventional and nuclear war. Although nuclear deterrence continually faced criticism on moral, political and strategic grounds, the Cold War ended, despite a number of close calls, without the use of nuclear weapons or direct conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union, allowing proponents to claim that nuclear deterrence had worked. However, while nuclear deterrence may have helped keep the peace between the superpowers it was unclear whether it would continue to do so in the new post-Cold War security environment.

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