The demise of nuclear deterrence

There are certain  sectors of academia and those in think tanks that write about nuclear deterrence as if it has value. Academics are outsiders. The insiders within government, even that of the United States, have since the early 1960’s discounted the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. Nonetheless nuclear weapons have tactical and strategic military value.

The case of Israel and Iran is one where this is obvious. If Israel wishes to deter Iran then Iran must be afraid of the warning that Israel is giving. Warning is a synonym for deterrence. If Israel is successfully deterring Iran, then Iran is afraid of Israel’s warning that if Iran threatens Israel then Israel will respond with all the means at her disposal. However Iran is not afraid. Iran, and Israel, know that the type and number of targets that Israel can attack in Iran are limited. Israel will not attack civilian targets in Iran. Israel will not invade and capture the capital Tehran. At best Israel will destroy a small number of military-related facilities. The more Israel warns and does not attack, the more Israeli warnings lose their deterrent value. So Iran considers Israeli warnings as rhetoric.

Another synonym for deterrence is probability. Iran the other side in the nuclear matrix with Israel has considered the probability that Israel will attack Iran and has found it to be minimal. Iran for decades has been able to develop uranium enrichment capabilities. Israel has not attacked these as it has done in other cases such as Iraq and Syria.

Iran has progressively considered the probability that it could attack Israel including civilian targets and inflict danger and has found it promising. Iran has considered the probability that Israel would respond to such an attack against Iran including civilian targets and has found it to be minimal.

Warning is a synonym for deterrence. Israel has considered the Iranian warning of nuclear weapons development and has found it to be substantial. Probability is a synonym for deterrence. Israel has considered the probability of Iran using nuclear weapons and has found it to be substantial.

So Israel is ineffectual in deterring Iran nuclear development yet Iran can inflict damage on Israel if nuclear weapons are developed. In sum the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence is doubtful; nonetheless nuclear weapons have tactical and strategic military value.

Even if Israel has nuclear weapons it is questionable if Israel could use them effectively. Perhaps this is why Israel has never declared as such. Even the suggestion that Israel could have nuclear weapons has little value. For decades alleged Israeli nuclear capability has been associated by outsider writings with the notion of the “Sampson Option”. If Israel were to use nuclear weapons it would be a last resort option. As in the case of biblical Sampson or Masada. Tactical battlefield use would leave radioactive fallout on Israeli territory. Strategic use against adversarial targets would inflict massive civilian deaths; and this is not Israel’s intent.

The case of Israel today is synonymous with that of American insider writings and understandings about nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons in the Cold War dating back to 1961. Few have read the full insider episodes of American nuclear strategy. Most have read the episodes of nuclear strategy that has proliferated with generations of academic scholars and think tanks, the outsiders. None of the outsiders came even close to the truth in their writings.

I have been fortunate to have received and read a prominent insider diary that was not published; that of James Edward King III. The nuclear strategy and thinking on deterrence that he describes shows that nuclear deterrence was considered of no value to the United States since 1961. It was in January 1961 that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev pledged support for “wars of national liberation” throughout the world. By the 1980’s this method of attack had succeeded. The majority of the world was neither democratic nor capitalist. He intoned that the Soviet Union would not invade Western Europe.

Throughout the Vietnam war of the 1960’s and 1970’s James Edward King III noted that nuclear weapons could not win wars nor deter adversaries. Consequently the détente of the 1970’s. He and other insiders have constantly insisted that nuclear weapons cannot deter or overpower radicalism and terrorism. These have insisted that nuclear weapons cannot deter, prevent or win civil wars. It is the outsiders in academia and think tanks that continue to erroneously postulate fantasies about nuclear deterrence.

Indeed data from the Correlates of War and International Crises Behavior projects show that anthropological, sociological, and psychological understandings of the causes of conflicts lead to their resolution; rather than political science and international relations meanderings on nuclear deterrence. Despite the demise of nuclear deterrence, if it ever existed; nuclear weapons in the hands of radical and unstable regimes and leaders can inflict devastation. The only solution is not deterrence but disarmament.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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