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Is deterrence still a useful concept in the post-Cold War world?

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Is deterrence still a useful concept in the post-Cold War world? ABSTRACT The literature discussing the role of nuclear weapons and nuclear policy in international relations has been historically shaped by the related concepts of deterrence and mutual assurance. However, whilst analysis of the 'First Nuclear Age' of the Cold War era clearly demonstrates a link between deterrence and the development of nuclear weapons, the gradual proliferation of nuclear weapons programmes in the post-Cold War era in states such as Israel, India, North Korea and Pakistan clearly points to a shifting justificatory rationale for nuclear weapons. This essay develops the argument that deterrence theory no longer provides a comprehensive explanation of the role of nuclear weapons in international relations. Instead, it is now clear that further research is needed to examine the relationship between the various motivational factors underpinning nuclear weapons programmes and changing international norms in order to truly evaluate the stabilising or potentially destabilising impact of nuclear weapons in international relations. 1. INTRODUCTION In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, international policymakers became overwhelmingly preoccupied with the potential ramifications of nuclear warfare within the world political order. After the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin issued a clear demand to his comrades: "Provide us with atomic weapons in the shortest possible time. You know that Hiroshima has shaken the whole world. The balance has been destroyed. Provide the bomb - it will remove a great danger from us" (cited in Sagan, 1996/97: 58). Stalin's demand at the close of the Second World War ushered in the beginnings of the Cold War and what has been termed the 'First Nuclear Age' (Walton & Gray, 2007). During this period nuclear weapons programmes were rooted directly in the attempts of both superpowers to assert power in the international arms race (Freedman, 2005). The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War marked the end of the 'First Nuclear Age' (Walton & Gray, 2007: 210)


Indeed, the inherent difficulty in considering existing norms and emotions in nuclear policy and international relations is their subjective nature as they exist beyond material or legal dimensions and lack empirical evidence. Some realists have tried to reconcile this by arguing that the emotional norms are part of a state's struggle for power gains (Gray, 1999). Mearsheimer has provided further support to the deterrence theory utilising NATO'S nuclear policies. The overall objectives of NATO require that member states share the risk and responsibilities of preserving international peace and security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter. Nuclear weapons comprise a key part of NATO's defence plans and collective defence policy. According to the defence doctrine of NATO laid down in 1949, the defence policy ensures "the ability to carry out strategic bombing including the prompt delivery of the atomic bomb," going on to state that "this is primarily a US responsibility assisted as practicable by other nations" (NATO Strategy Document 1949 -1969, M.C.3/2). Mearsheimer argues that with regard to the NATO nuclear deterrent "with the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons, there is good reason to be very confident about NATO'S deterrence posture" (Mearshimer, 1985; Gray, 1999: 45). He further argues that it is vital in the international arena to keep the military risk high in order to make deterrence more effective (Gray, 1999: 21). One may argue, however, that the potential costs of such measures may outweigh the deterrent effect. Conversely, critics of the deterrence theory have argued that it is outdated and that its underlying assumptions are naïve and not applicable to contemporary state leaders and international relations policy (Gray, 1999). In this, deterrence theory is underpinned by the assumption that the opponent is rational and mutually vulnerable and that the opponent is in fact a state (Gray, 1999). Opponents of the deterrence theory also highlight the fact that as a theory, deterrence has not been practically tested, and cannot provide unequivocal evidence that the Soviet Union was actually deterred by the USA during the Cold War (Segal, 1988: 21).


Deterrence theory - centred on the prevention of the use of nuclear weapons - fails to properly address the issue of causality triggers behind nuclear policies. Whilst deterrence theory undoubtedly explains much about nuclear weapons programmes in the international system, the inherent weakness of the theory is that it fails to account for the changing global political climate, whereby nuclear strategy and proliferation is shaped by complex, multifarious objectives. It is further argued that the stability of the international system and the political balance at the international level is inherently dependent on the axis of nuclear control. While deterrence theory was appropriate to explain the 'stabilising' effect of nuclear policy in the First Nuclear Age, it is plainly inadequate for the current political climate. The impact of a nuclear weapons programme is inherently dependent on the political and social climate at any given time. Though in some periods nuclear weapons act more as a stabilising force, it must be stated that the risk of destabilisation remains potent as long as nuclear weapons exist as a potential tool in the battle for international clout. Yet beyond this, deterrence theory has clearly been subverted by North Korea and Iran with anti-colonial undertones motivating their nuclear strategies. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the bolstering of anti-proliferation legislation and the inception of the CTBT in 1996 paradoxically only served to fuel India's nuclear weapons programme (Tannerwald, 2005). Not only does this again highlight the weakness of the deterrence theory in contemporary politics, it further highlights the failure of official measures to consider causality in foreign policy motivation, which in turn renders the nuclear weapon a potent tool for destabilising international relations. In order to redress this risk and achieve the overall purpose of the idealistic deterrence theory, it is proposed that in addition to considerations of causality, institutional frameworks assuming responsibility for international nuclear enforcement should consider actively working towards a compromise co-operative model with these 'rogue' nuclear states and non-state organisations.

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