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The deterrence myth

13 Jan 2018 - 14:00

After the United States’ nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, war changed. Until then, the overriding purpose of military forces had ostensibly been to win wars. But according to the influential US strategist Bernard Brodie writing in 1978: ‘From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.’ Thus, nuclear deterrence was born, a seemingly rational arrangement by which peace and stability were to arise by the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD, appropriately enough). Winston Churchill described it in 1955 with characteristic vigour: ‘Safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.’ Importantly, deterrence became not only a purported strategy, but the very grounds on which governments justified nuclear weapons themselves. Every government that now possesses nuclear weapons claims that they deter attacks by their threat of catastrophic retaliation.

Even a brief examination, however, reveals that deterrence is not remotely as compelling a principle as its reputation suggests. In his novel The Ambassadors (1903), Henry James described a certain beauty as ‘a jewel brilliant and hard’, at once twinkling and trembling, adding that ‘what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next’. The public has been bamboozled by the shiny surface appearance of deterrence, with its promise of strength, security and safety. But what has been touted as profound strategic depth crumbles with surprising ease when subjected to critical scrutiny.