Nuclear deterrence between the two superpowers during the Cold War cannot be considered a conflict because of the abstract nature of nuclear strategy. Discuss.

Essay 2003 9 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security


When the USA dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945, the world witnessed the first and so far the last use of these weapons. Their devastating effect led to a worldwide fear of atomic bombs, but could not, however, prevent a number of states from developing these fatal devices. In fact, the two superpowers engaged in the subsequent arms race during the Cold War, which, in the end, left both with a nuclear arsenal big enough to destroy the entire world several times over.

Although these weapons exist in huge amounts, they have never been used for military purposes since. This distinction is important to make, because the superpowers did make use of their nuclear arsenal on a political level, namely with the strategy of nuclear deterrence. Based on the US assurance that a Soviet attack on the USA or its allies would be answered with massive retaliation[1], this strategy has prevented a nuclear war.

However, it seems contradictory to call a period of time when war was prevented ‘conflict’. Nevertheless, nuclear deterrence as the main strategy of the Cold War is usually seen as conflict, although it produced no casualties or destruction.

By looking at the concept of nuclear deterrence in more detail this essay will argue that nuclear deterrence must be seen as a conflict, even though arguments can be found underlining the view that it is not. It is certainly true that the abstract nature of nuclear strategy makes an explanation in the traditional Clausewitzian sense of conflict impossible. However, recognising the fact that the arrival of the nuclear bomb has changed the purpose of military strategy fundamentally, namely from the purpose of winning wars to the purpose of preventing wars[2], inevitably leads to a new concept of conflict.

Nuclear strategy has introduced a shift of strategic thinking away from the military towards politics. This does of course mean that ‘conflict’ now has to be defined in political terms. ‘Conflict’ can no longer only be seen as the confrontation of armies in the battlefield but must include the threat of use of force, as the political dimension of conflict, as well.

It is then the abstract nature of nuclear strategy that calls for a new definition of ‘conflict’ and this essay shall thus conclude that only because of the abstract nature of nuclear strategy we can consider nuclear deterrence as a conflict.

Before looking at the concept of nuclear deterrence in more detail, it seems appropriate to briefly define the concept of deterrence more broadly. It seems also necessary to give a brief historical overview of nuclear deterrence between the superpowers in order to understand the conflict nature of this concept better.

‘Deterrence’ as a military strategy is not a new concept, but probably ‘as old as the use of physical force’[3]. It seems to be a relatively simple strategy on first sight: a state threatens a potential aggressor with retaliation in case he attacks. Deterrence is then no more than “an attempt to frighten the adversary into inaction.”[4]

However, in order for deterrence to achieve its aim, i.e. the enemy’s inaction, a number of requirements have to be met. Firstly, there has to be adequate communication between the opponents. If the potential aggressor is not told what consequences he faces when he attacks, he cannot be deterred of his intended actions. Secondly, the deterring state must have the capability to do what it says it will do. This is certainly not the case when the deterrence is a bluff. Yet, in case the attack takes place and the deterrence fails, the attacked state would have lost its credibility for future deterrence. Credibility, however, is the third requirement for successful deterrence. In a non-nuclear context credibility is not such a huge problem, as it is relatively easy for a state to proof the size of its army or the number of weapons it possesses. Also it is not unlikely that a state will make full use of its army and its weapons in a war situation.

It is important to note that deterrence has nothing to do with the use of force, the use of force is only threatened. “The essence of deterrence is not physically to obstruct or prevent a particular course of action but to make such a choice seem costly and unattractive.”[5]

Principally, nuclear deterrence is not different from non-nuclear deterrence. However, there are a number of problems specific to nuclear deterrence.

First and foremost is the problem of credibility. Atomic bombs have only been used once in the history of mankind, a fact, which lets the threat of their use, appear unlikely. It is thus the biggest challenge for nuclear deterrence to appear credible although everyone knows that it is doubtful that a nuclear war will actually happen. Nonetheless, it is also clear that a major difference between non-nuclear and nuclear deterrence “was the degree to which it was intolerable that it should fail.”[6]


[1] It was US and NATO strategy not to strike first, but possibly be the first to use nuclear weapons. The term ‘massive retaliation’ derives from the Eisenhower administration and will be discussed later in this essay

[2] Bernard Brodie: ‘The Development of Nuclear Strategy’, in: Steven E. Miller (ed.): Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence: An International Security Reader, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1984, p.3

[3] Brodie, op.cit., p.4

[4] Phil Williams: ‘Nuclear Deterrence’, in: Baylis, John, Ken Booth, John Garnett, Phil Williams: Contemporary Strategy I (2nd ed.), Croom Helm, London, 1987, p.115

[5] ibid., p.116

[6] Brodie, op.cit., p.4


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Nuclear Cold Discuss



Title: Nuclear deterrence between the two superpowers during the Cold War cannot be considered a conflict because of the abstract nature of nuclear strategy. Discuss.