Has nuclear deterrence changed since the end of the Cold War?


Bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of other nations. Weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us”

The current year was 1961, the Cold War was about to reach its climax, and John F. Kennedy, during his Inaugural Address, was making the aforementioned statement. Today, more than half a century later, the debate on the role of the nuclear weapons he was referring to is more conflictual and urgent than ever. With the end of the Cold War, the question has shifted on the role of nuclear weapons, particularly of nuclear deterrence, in a new security scenario, thus dividing the world between those believing in the persistence of factors legitimising nuclear arsenals and those enhancing the feasibility of a world freed from nuclear weapons.

The aim of this article is to evaluate the current function and importance of nuclear deterrence in relation to its changes since the Cold War. To do so, we will conduct analysis, among the classical actors employing it, of the significance over time of deterrence, considered as a passive tool to defend from a first strike attack and the changes, if any, that this concept has faced. We will then encounter the second approach of our analysis, considering the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence in preventing non-nuclear attacks, but rather conventional ones or those exploiting other weapons of mass destruction, such as the chemical ones, in the post-Cold War world with the innovation that the period has introduced.

It is in our opinion safe to say that the employment of nuclear weapons from the end of the Cold War is again a priority in the security agenda but it is although necessary to underline the lack of exclusivity of such a strategy:  the traditional approach of deterrence applied to nuclear strategy is still significant in the security dilemmas landscape, as shown by its prominence in the Nuclear Posture Review Report of the US released in 2010. In consideration of the spending plan of the United States of America and of the Russian Federation, both committed in the development of more precise delivery systems with regard to their long-range strategic nuclear forces, it would be utterly incorrect to limit the relevance of Nuclear Deterrence to the Cold War period: the old fear of the new arms race is still hunting the two old Superpowers decades later.

It would although be a mistake not to stress the elements of discontinuity with the past, first of all, underlying the current lack of bipolarity that used to characterise the post-WWII period. The emerging importance of the People’s Republic of China, in addition to the Arsenals’ disparity of the different Nuclear powers, prevented the Mutual Assured Destruction’s efficiency to be applicable: the reinterpretation of the deterrence strategies was, therefore, a natural consequence of such a change as the fear of devastation of a first strike (typical of the Cold War) could no longer be applied. The emergence of international terrorism, shifting the primary insecurity source for the United States to a non-state actor, has surely been an additional significant factor. In facing such an enemy, the traditional deterrence would have not been an effective tool and therefore, a shaping of the aforementioned strategy was necessary and promptly enacted. What currently probably represents the major innovation in deterrence strategy since the Cold War, is expanded deterrence, hence a deterrence aimed at governments supporting terrorist organisations as a possible solution, or at least response, to the eventuality of a terrorists’ use of WMD.

The nuclear powers of NATO have clearly shown a joint strategic line in shaping their strategies according to the innovations enacted by the US: in 2006, France first and Great Britain later, claimed that it was a plausible option to attack (in retaliation of a terrorist attack and with their nuclear warheads) a State sponsoring terrorists’ groups. It is indeed for what concerns countering terrorism that nuclear deterrence has witnessed an important evolution which does not seem to stop in any recent times: even in future times, as pre-emptive war lack of popularity among citizens, that deterrence strategy seems to be the most effective to respond to such a threat. Not of less importance is a more political element: the international reputation gained by the State adopting, for the first time since the only two existing cases, nuclear weapons in the battlefield. Within the international arena, in light of the international provisions fostering the lack of legitimacy of a nuclear first-strike attack, that State, ignoring the nuclear taboo, would automatically become a pariah. An element countering that continuity since the Cold War, is the three-party extended deterrence, i.e. the nuclear strategy adopted by the majority of States following the Non-Proliferation Treaty: instead of developing their own nuclear arsenals, they rely on those owned by Nuclear Powers, to prevent nuclear, but also conventional, attacks from the latter, feeling protected under the “nuclear umbrella”.

Confidently, we can affirm that nuclear deterrence is still a significant component of NATO’s (and in particular U.S.' of course) strategy, as stated in the 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review; and we can also assert that the approach adopted towards it is one of conservativism, referring mainly to States rather than to other, more recent, entities of threat.


Serena Carassale