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Is nuclear deterrence morally defensible? 


It is hard to morally defend nuclear deterrence, but, to follow the realist train of thought, nuclear weapons exist and are now an established part of the security dilemma faced by the world’s great and regional nuclear powers (US, Russia, China, India, France, Britain, Israel, and Pakistan).  The threat of the annihilation of not only a foreign military, but the people, infrastructure, cities, culture – as former Secretary of Defense R. McNamara often expresses – the destruction of nations is not morally defensible.  I believe it is an unwinnable argument to try and convince others that the annihilation of a people is morally defensible.  However, the defense of one’s own people is morally defensible, it is absolutely necessary for the survival of a nation.  Therefore, offensive nuclear use is morally repugnant, but the maintenance of a nuclear deterrence in response to the threat of another nuclear nation is defensible. 


However, Iran is furiously working towards the development of a nuclear capability because of the threatening language (Axis of Evil) we continue to use against them.  I would propose that it is not morally defensible to blatantly threaten other nations, to the point of threatening pre-emptive nuclear force (remember, Secretary Rumsfeld brought up the use of low-yield “bunker busting” nuclear weapons as permissible to use in the “new age” post-September 11, with a not too-veiled threat aimed at Iran).  However, as Schelling wrote, “And before brute force succeeds when it is used, whereas the power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve.  It is the threat of damage, or of more damage to come, that can make someone yield or comply.”


I would also argue that some strategies of nuclear deterrence are more ethical than others.  Currently, I work for NATO and the current strategy we hold, in regards to nuclear weapons, is flexible response.  Despite what we see in popular culture, NATO, since the 1960s, has never intended a conflict to be settled through the immediate launching of all first-strike weapons – devastating the entire Warsaw Pact territory, followed by sea-launched, and land based second-strike weapons.  The doctrine of flexible response dictates a proportional use of force.  For example, if there had been an invasion of West Germany during the Cold War, we would have fought conventionally while using tactical (read: smaller, less damaging) short range nuclear missiles against military targets.  In response to a strike against a city like Brussels, where NATO head quarters is located, we would have destroyed a capital city of a Soviet Satellite state, example, Prague, or Budapest.  I realize it is very gut-wrenching to even think about what flexible response involves in terms of horrendous loss of life and destruction, but it does not involve the immediate launching of everything, and the wonton destruction of the entire northern-hemisphere.  I don’t believe flexible response is very morally defensible, but it is an attempt to rationalize the unfathomable and to put some sort of proportionality to nuclear deterrence. 


Question: I am writing about Cold War military strategies, but this is all changing now that we face global terrorism.  What if a nuclear terrorist attack took place in the US, or Europe against one of our allies, with ten-of-thousands of casualties, maybe more, in my opinion, “flexible response” is useless against a non-state actor.  How do we deter this?  What would be our response?  Shawn wrote earlier, in describing morality, that morality is conforming to standards of right or just behavior.  Does that same concept of morality apply when we are certain our enemies (terrorists) would not only not abide by these standards, but use them to their advantage?




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