Winston Churchill famously lamented, “It may be that we shall by a process of sublime irony have reached a stage in this story where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation. ” In the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a new nuclear age was ushered in with mushroom clouds and unimaginable destruction. Suddenly, humankind had invented a weapon powerful enough—if used in sufficient quantity—to destroy the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life.
For the world, the menace of nuclear winter was terrifying. To social scientists, it was equally frightening, but also presented a new paradigm of international relations. Technology has evolved throughout history, but never before had an advancement in weapons fundamentally shifted anything more than battlefield tactics. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, brought a tremendous shift in the relations between states.
Suddenly, the stakes of war were different; suddenly, war between two states had implications for the planet that wars had never produced before. John Mueller, in his article “The Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons,” disputes the idea that nuclear weapons actually fundamentally changed the landscape of international relations. Instead, Mueller argues, the horrors of World Wars I and II already escalated the stakes of warfare to a tipping point level, where the costs were so high that warfare was naturally deterred between stable, developed states.
Specifically, Mueller cites the memory of World War II, superpower contentment with the postwar status quo, Soviet ideology, and a fear of escalation as the primary four reasons that nuclear weapons did not fundamentally change the nature of war deterrence. Mueller’s argument, while logically sound, has not held up to the tests of empiricism. Mueller’s first argument—that nuclear deterrence had little impact because all nations were already so horrified by the devastation wrought by World War II that they would never repeat its destruction—is weak.
Certainly, World War II is the most tragic and destructive event of the twentieth century and probably is unrivalled in human history for its breadth of brutality and human loss of life. Yet, as Mueller admits, World War I was enough to convince the world of the maxim “never again,” only to have a similar conflict erupt twenty years after the guns of World War I were silenced. On top of the similarity between World War I and World War II, the wake of World War II was not free from conflict.
For the United States, even, the Korean conflict broke out less than a decade after World War II and was quickly followed by Vietnam. Both conflicts brought about staggering casualties. Clearly, World War II was worse, but it was not enough of a deterrent to stop many wars in its aftermath. In other words, Mueller’s argument that nuclear deterrence did not fundamentally shift the landscape because World War II’s horrors took care of doing so, does not stand up to the test of facts; conflicts erupted regardless. More importantly, however, nuclear war would be substantially different than World War II.
World War II was immensely devastating because it was fought by enormous armies of many different countries for several years. Nuclear war could not be more different; it could be carried out with little more than a small air force, the right bombs, and could last days. Once the Soviet Union and the United States acquired nuclear weapons, it was a different ballgame. Entire cities could be wiped off the map in a second. For policymakers, that changed the incentive structures. Undertaking a war with the Soviet Union prior to the nuclear age would have enlisted the entire nation’s resources, citizens, and finances.
On the other hand, when there was an asymmetry of power—between 1945 and 1949 specifically—the American government could have eliminated a Soviet city from existence with little more than a single jet and a small aircrew. That skewed the playing field heavily in the favor of the United States. But, that changed when the Soviets acquired nuclear capability. Suddenly, both countries faced the same incentives and the same disincentives to go to war; each was assured that a nuclear attack by one would prompt a retaliation—perhaps a disproportionate one—from the other.
This created a paradox—without having to deploy armies or finance massive military campaigns, war was much closer; it simply took an order from Washington or Moscow. Yet, the stakes were also higher. With nuclear weapons in play, escalation was simultaneously much closer and much less desirable. The fact that conventional conflicts between states raged on in the post-war era but nuclear conflict has never arisen speaks volumes about the unique power of a nuclear deterrent. Thus, Mueller’s argument about the deterrence of conventional conflict does not hold up to analytical scrutiny given history’s contradiction.
Moreover, Mueller’s argument that the superpowers were already unlikely to go to war (with or without nuclear weapons) because they were content with the status quo is equally vacuous. Certainly, the superpowers never engaged directly in combat. But nuclear weapon deterrent theory posits that nuclear weapons impedes escalation to the highest levels because the costs associated are simply unbearable for all involved parties. In other words, if Mueller is correct that the post-war status quo already acted as a sufficient deterrent, then the superpowers should have been peaceful throughout the Cold War.
Far from it, they instead engaged in many proxy wars—wars specifically designed to allow low-level conflict as each vied for further control of the globe, but simultaneously to ensure that the conflict would never rage out of control and risk bringing nuclear weapons to the table. Cold War flare ups between communist and capitalist powers prove Mueller’s theory to be false; the post-war status quo was repeatedly altered as the Soviets and Americans each sought to expand their power and gain a strategic advantage over their enemy, without inviting the use of nuclear weapons precisely because of nuclear deterrence.
Mueller’s third argument—that Soviet ideology was a sufficient deterrent that is often mis-attributed to the myth of nuclear deterrence—is simply a red herring. Mueller makes a strong case, certainly, but it does not address the fundamentals of nuclear deterrence theory. Simply because the Soviets in particular may have been less likely to engage in a full-out war with another hegemonic power, that does not negate the validity of nuclear deterrence theory.
Simply stated, nuclear deterrence theory is an idea that applies to all states, and invoking the Soviet case to disprove the entirety of the rule is a weak attack that falls flat. Mueller’s fourth argument—that a fear of escalation was already in place and did not need nuclear weapons to operate—is equally flawed. Fear of escalation is precisely the heart of nuclear deterrence theory: nuclear weapons prevent war because provoking a nuclear power is likely to yield unspeakable horrors.
Mueller suggests that the threat of war alone is horrific enough to produce a similar deterrent and that as a result, nuclear weapons did little to change deterrence dynamics. But empirical research disagrees. According to Robert Rauchhaus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, “When a nuclear asymmetry exists between two states, there is a greater chance of militarized disputes and war. In contrast, when there is symmetry and both states possess nuclear weapons, then the odds of war precipitously drop.
” Rauchhaus’s research, which draws upon many decades of empirical research, quantitatively validates the importance of nuclear weapons. Even though, as Rauchhaus points out, nuclear weapons are not universally positive in their deterrent effects (asymmetrical nuclear capabilities can promote rather than deter war, for example), they inevitably have an impact (and a substantial one at that) on international affairs. This study flies in the face of Mueller’s claim that nuclear weapons are simply tangential deterrents running parallel to a larger deterrent growing out of the desire to avoid large wars.
On all four fronts, Mueller’s claims are flimsy. His article is nonetheless important because it challenges the premises of deterrent theory and suggests an alternative viewpoint. In the end, however, it seems that nuclear weapons do make a difference: conventional wars continue at regular intervals, but no nuclear weapon has been dropped in warfare since the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima jolted the world into a stunned realization that nuclear warfare was simply unacceptable and needed to be avoided at all costs.