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By Diane Perlman, PhD

There is a heated debate over whether nuclear deterrence works. The stakes are too high to get this wrong. This should not be a matter of opinion, emotion, beliefs, or politics but impartial social science and research.

Hilary Clinton, speaking to NPT

THE ONE AND ONLY THEORY Deterrence has not only been the dominant theory for nuclear policy but the only theory that has captured the political imagination for decades. We even call them "nuclear deterrents" not weapons.

Deterrence is designed to use threats of overwhelming violence to control a state's behavior. We believe we must be tough, strong and show resolve, to make the Other afraid. We dread weakness or "appeasement," fearing our own vulnerability. Giving up our "nuclear deterrent" feels like letting down our guard. Fear of giving up nukes is greater than of building more.

Deterrence has great appeal as the best way to prevent nuclear war. Based on deductive logic, it is impossible to prove deterrence is the reason for preventing aggression in any case. There may be other factors. Deterrence seems to work under some conditions and break down in others. It may humiliate and coerce actors into short-term submission only to blow up later like a political Columbine. We cannot prove whether it worked during the Cold War or whether it was "dumb luck" as Robert MacNamara claimed. It almost broke down several times.

To work, one has to have perfect knowledge of how the Other thinks and feels, and precisely what will deter them rather than provoke defiance or an impulsive reaction out of fear. With psychological ignorance of the Other's motives, intentions and attitudes, policy makers may misinterpret adversaries according to their own beliefs, which may bear no relationship to reality.

Even if we could claim that deterrence "worked" in a particular case 1 Deterrence does not address or correct underlying conflicts or improve relationships. 2 - It misses the chance to resolve conflicts, and spoils opportunities for exploring mutual interests and creative solutions, 3 It may seem to work in the short-term, but produce humiliation, defiance, instability, increase the popularity of hardliners, harm moderates and motivate asymmetric responses, and 4 Another approach might have worked better and improved relations.

survivor of US bombing of Nagasaki

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Furthermore deterrence works against disarmament. The mindless mantra, "As long as nuclear weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, reliable deterrent" uses circular logic. As long as we "maintain a safe, reliable "deterrent'" others will feel the need to have their own "deterrent" against us. There is no endgame.

If we believe deterrence is the only strategy to suppress an enemy's aggression, the thought of giving it up is frightening. We might cling to its illusory promise of security.

DEBATING THE WRONG QUESTION In "Deterrence Reconsidered: The Challenge of Research," Richard Ned Lebow notes that states don't always act according to theory. They may act either more cautiously or more risky than predicted. Critics of deterrence observe that ".. it can provoke the very behavior it seeks to prevent."

Instead of fighting over whether deterrence works, let's ask when it might work, under what conditions, for how long, and when it might have the opposite effect of provoking an attack. Does deterrence work - compared to what? Are there better ways?

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THE SECURITY DILEMMA AND THE SPIRAL MODEL Deterrence leads to policies that increase tension, fear and insecurity in the Other. In "Preventing Armageddon," Morton Deutsch describes how "If one party in a conflict attempts to increase its security without regard for the security of the other party, the attempt readily becomes self-defeating, a situation that is potentially catastrophic when the stakes involve nuclear war. If military inferiority is dangerous, so is superiority. It is dangerous for either side in a conflict to feel tempted or frightened into action, or to have grounds to believe that its antagonist might be so tempted or frightened. According to this analysis, our security and that of an adversary can only be obtained through our mutual security."

Pressure creates conditions where deterrence can break down and trigger dynamics that provoke what Deutsch calls a "malignant spiral of hostile interaction." In "Deterrence, the Spiral Model, and Intentions of the Adversary," Robert Jervis says, "Spiral and deterrence theories contradict each other at every point" Each claiming to be true, give opposite answers on strategy. "..deterrers worry that aggressors will underestimate .. their resolve, " "while the spiral theorists believe that each side will overestimate the hostility of the other." Advocates of each theory fail to describe the conditions under which their favored approach does not apply.

Jody Williams pleads for elimination of nuclear weapons

CONDIITONS FOR DETERRENCE OR SPIRAL Jervis observes deterrence works best when the Other sees its costs for standing firm as too high and costs of retreating as low, if their central values, issues, and commitments are not involved, if goals are seen as limited, deriving from a desire for security, if means and goals are proper for equal actors, and if there is no humiliation, gratuitous punishment, illegitimate demands for something of greater value to the Other, and if there is no fear that a retreat will lead to further demands. Ralph K.White says deterrence works best when accompanied by drastic tension reduction.

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Visiting Scholar Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution George Mason University
Diane Perlman is a clinical and political psychologist, devoted to applying knowledge from psychology, conflict studies and social sciences to designing strategies and policies to reverse nuclear proliferation, to drastically reduce terrorism, (more...)

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