Nuclear peace

Nuclear peace

Nuclear peace is a theory of International Relations (IR) which argues that under some circumstances nuclear weapons can induce stability and decrease the chances of crisis escalation. In particular, nuclear weapons are said to have induced stability during the Cold War, when both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. possessed mutual second-strike retaliation capability, eliminating the possibility of nuclear victory for either side. Proponents of the nuclear peace argue that controlled nuclear proliferation may be beneficial for inducing stability. Critics of the nuclear peace argue that nuclear proliferation not only increases the chance of inter-state nuclear conflict, but increases the chances of nuclear material falling into the hands of non-state groups who are free from the threat of nuclear retaliation.

The major debate on this issue has been between Kenneth Waltz, the founder of neorealist theory in international relations, and Scott Sagan, a leading proponent of organizational theories in international politics. Waltz generally argues that "more may be better," contending that new nuclear states will use their acquired nuclear capabilities to deter threats and preserve peace. Sagan argues that "more will be worse", since new nuclear states often lack adequate organizational controls over their new weapons, which makes for a high risk of either deliberate or accidental nuclear war, or nuclear theft by terrorists.


The nuclear peace argument

A nuclear peace results when the costs of war are unacceptably high for both sides. In a two-sided conflict where both sides have mutual second-strike capability, defense becomes impossible. Thus, it is the very prospect of fighting the war rather than the possibility of losing it that induces restraint.

In a condition of mutual assured destruction, there are civilian “hostages” on both sides. This facilitates cooperation by acting as an informal mechanism of contract enforcement between states. There are economic equivalents of such informal mechanisms used to effect credible commitment - for example, corporations use hostages (in the form of initial setup costs that act as collateral) to deter subsidiaries and franchisees from cheating.

Nuclear weapons may also lessen a state's reliance on allies for security, thus preventing allies from dragging each other into wars (a phenomenon known as chainganging, frequently said to be a major cause of World War I).

Since the death of civilians is an essential part of mutually assured destruction, one normative consequence of nuclear weapons is that war loses its historical function as a symbol of glory and measure of national strength.

Criticisms of the nuclear peace argument

Critics argue that war can occur even under conditions of mutually assured destruction, for several reasons:

Actors are not always rational; bureaucratic procedure and internal intrigue may cause sub-rational outcomes. Related to and reinforcing this point is that there is always an element of uncertainty. One can’t always control emotions, subordinates, equipment. One has limited information and is faced with high stakes and fast timetables. There are unintended consequences, unwanted escalation, irrationality, misperception, and the security dilemma.

Another reason is that deterrence has an inherent instability. As Kenneth Boulding said: “If deterrence were really stable…it would cease to deter.” If decisionmakers were perfectly rational, they would never order the large-scale use of nuclear weapons and the credibility of the nuclear threat would be low.

Yet another set of reasons is that there can still be the possibility of the loss of mutual second-strike capability. This can come about from the gain of decisive first strike capability or the creation of a nuclear missile shield.

Moreover, critics argue that nuclear bipolarity is a special artifact of the Cold War, and that the increased uncertainty of nuclear multipolarity, along with the existence of international terrorist networks seeking access to nuclear sources, means that the Cold War-era ideas about the nuclear peace cannot be applied to today's world.

Proponents of the nuclear peace counter that nuclear weapons induce stability in all regimes, and that states have managed to control their nuclear weapons even in times of great instability, such as during China's Cultural Revolution.

Critics have also argued that although nuclear weapons contribute to stability at a strategic level, they can encourage smaller instances of instability that are not believed likely to blossom into full-scale warfare. This process is known as the Stability-instability paradox, and is perhaps best exemplified by the small wars (small relative to the possibility of a nuclear exchange) that sprang up during the Cold War, such as Vietnam and Korea.

See also


  • Robert Jervis, "The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon", Cornell University Press: 1990
  • Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed", Second Edition, W.W. Norton and Company: 2002

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