Zachary Keck

Why Nuclear Weapons Work

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Zachary Keck

Why Nuclear Weapons Work

Far from being a myth, nuclear deterrence is nearly an ironclad law.

Why Nuclear Weapons Work
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last month this blog had the pleasure of featuring a piece by Ward Wilson, a Senior Fellow at BASIC and the author of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. The piece refuted my argument that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as awful as they undoubtedly were — ultimately saved lives.

However, as I mentioned in a different post, Wilson’s main focus was less about whether the atomic bombings saved lives and more about whether they were effective in bringing about Japan’s surrender. This is not surprising, as the question of whether the atomic bombings were militarily effective has been central to Wilson’s work.

For those who aren’t familiar with him, Wilson is a fantastic scholar on nuclear weapons but an ardent opponent of their existence. Unlike most scholars advocating nuclear disarmament, Wilson has sought to delegitimize nuclear weapons on strategic grounds.

One of his best known works in this regard was a highly touted Nonproliferation Review article called, “The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence.” As the title suggests, the article argues that nuclear deterrence is a myth based on false pretenses. Specifically, Wilson contends that nuclear deterrence relies on “what today might be called a ‘shock and awe’ strategy: threatening to devastate enemy cities in order to coerce. At the heart of the theory is faith that the prospect of city destruction creates decisive leverage.”

Wilson argues that this belief stems from the view that the atomic bombs used against Japan in WWII were decisive in bringing about its surrender. As he explained in his article on this site: “The claim that nuclear weapons won the war is the foundation myth of nuclear weapons. It establishes their quasi-magic ability to coerce and deter, which grows into the theory of nuclear deterrence in the 1950s.” Thus, Wilson has spent a great of energy making the (very persuasive) case that the Soviet Union’s decision to declare war on Japan was what led Tokyo surrender, not the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But he doesn’t stop there. As noted above, Wilson makes the case that nuclear deterrence is based on the notion that no state could withstand nuclear attacks on their cities. Thus, a state would quickly surrender during a war if their major population centers came under nuclear attack. If this is not the case, Wilson contends, nuclear deterrence is a myth and nuclear weapons themselves can be abolished with little strategic loss to anyone.

Fortunately, Wilson believes there is a strong case to be made that states would not surrender even if nuclear weapons were used against their population centers. Indeed, he notes that since the time of Genghis Khan, countless strategists have believed that targeting an adversaries’ civilian population would prove militarily decisive. Almost all of them.

One of the best examples of this are air power proponents, especially before WWI and WWII. As Wilson notes, before World War I many air power enthusiasts argued that the war would be decided by civilian bombings. They were certain that no state could continue the war if their civilian population were under constant attack from the skies. This of course proved completely false, and the war was settled by militaries fighting in the trenches. Nonetheless, on the eve of WWII, there were even more people who were more certain that strategic bombing would prove decisive this time around. And, in their defense, the intensity of WWII strategic bombing campaigns went far beyond anything that was seen in WWI. Still, far from being decisive in and of itself, air power only served to complement land power, particularly in Europe. The primacy of land power remained (and, as The Naval Diplomat has suggested, probably will for as long as humans choose to live on land instead of in the sky or sea.)

Strategic bombing campaigns since WWII have almost always reinforced the lessons from that war. But it’s not just that strategic bombings against civilian populations have failed. Wilson notes that other civilian-centric strategies have proven equally ineffective. For example, citing Max Abrahms’ excellent study, Wilson notes that terrorism almost never works. In fact, Abrahms found that in the few instances when terrorist groups were successful, they had used guerrilla tactics that targeted the state. Abrahms found no examples of civilian-centric terrorist groups achieving their goals.

This doesn’t surprise Wilson, as he argues that the logic of targeting civilians is flawed. Those advocating civilian-centric strategies believe that when a population comes under attack, it will naturally demand that its leaders surrender so the attacks stop. As Wilson points out, this rarely happens. To the contrary, targeting civilians almost always serves to harden the resolve of the target state’s civilians and leaders. That’s because, according to Wilson (summarizing Abrahms’ argument), “If you attack civilians… no matter what sort of message you intend to communicate, you are likely to simply convince your opponent that you intend to exterminate him.” And once your adversary believes you’re trying to exterminate him, he has every reason to continue fighting to the bitter end.

Which brings us back to nuclear weapons. Wilson argues that since targeting civilian populations has never worked in the past, there’s no reason to think nuclear attacks on large population centers will prove militarily effective. Of course, a proponent of nuclear deterrence might counter that the sheer destructive power of nuclear weapons will make them effective where conventional weapons have failed.

Wilson isn’t buying it. He argues, “In human activities, means are rarely as important as ends. We do not, for instance, call killing someone with a gun murder, but killing someone with a feather pillow just good-natured fun. Killing someone is murder no matter what means you use.” Thus, by this logic, if conventional strategic bombings don’t force states to surrender, there’s no reason to believe that nuclear attacks will. And if nuclear attacks aren’t militarily effective, Wilson contends, then nuclear deterrence is a myth.

Wilson’s piece is undoubtedly insightful, and he deserves credit for forcefully challenging one of the security studies fields most deeply held convictions: namely, that nuclear weapons would be militarily effective during a war (hopefully, we never find out who is right on this question).

Still, none of this supports Wilson’s conclusion that nuclear deterrence is a myth.

The issue with Wilson’s argument is that he conflates two separate concepts. On the one hand, Wilson makes the case that nuclear coercion isn’t as ironclad as is believed. That is, using nuclear weapons against major population centers would not necessarily make the target state surrender.

On the other hand, Wilson concludes from this that nuclear deterrence is a myth. But even if he is correct in arguing that nuclear coercion is a myth, he has done nothing to disprove nuclear deterrence.

Indeed, not only has the security studies field long differentiated between coercion and deterrence, but it is widely accepted that coercion is much more difficult than deterrence. That’s because for coercion to be successful, the target state must take a positive action. This usually entails giving up something it already possesses — whether that be territory or a nuclear weapons problem or something else entirely — and most likely values.

By contrast, successful deterrence simply requires that the target state remains passive — that is, the target state doesn’t take a certain action or acquire something it doesn’t already possess. This is much easier to convince states to do because states, like people, value maintaining what they already have more than they value acquiring new things. For example, although coin tosses give each side a 50 percent chance of winning, few people would bet their life savings on a coin toss. That’s because they value their current savings more than they value acquiring twice as much money.

Metaphors can often be useful in illustrating abstract concepts, but only when the metaphors are comparable to the concepts themselves. On this metric, Wilson falls short. As noted above, to demonstrate why the failure of strategic bombings and terrorism means nuclear coercion will also fail, Wilson points out that we call killing someone murder whether the crime was committed with a gun or a feather pillow. But how societies label an outcome — in this case, murder — tells us little about coercion or deterrence.

A more fitting metaphor would be comparing armed robbery with pillow feather robbery. If a man points a gun at my head and says, “Give me your wallet or I’ll kill you,” I’m apt to surrender my wallet. Even if that man is weaker than me, his gun gives him the capability to kill me quickly and with certainty. However, if that same man puts a feather pillow to my head and says “Give me your wallet or I’ll kill you,” I’m more apt to mock him than to enrich him. To be sure, it’s possible to kill me with a feather pillow, but it’s much more difficult to do so than it is with a firearm. If this weaker man attacked me with feather pillow, I’d be more than capable of defending myself. Still, if I am standing in line at a street vendor and the feather pillow-armed man behind me says “Don’t buy the last Red Bull or I’ll kill you,” I may go for the Monster energy drink instead. Even though I’m not scared this man will kill me, the can of Red Bull is not worth enough to me to engage in a fight over.

As helpful as metaphors can sometimes be, they are hardly needed for discussing concepts like coercion or deterrence. Indeed, international politics offers a nearly unlimited amount of actual cases that demonstrate that coercion is more difficult than deterrence. For example, the U.S. deterred the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe, but it couldn’t coerce it into surrendering Eastern Europe. Similarly, while the threat of mutually assured destruction deterred the Soviet Union and the United States (and more recently, India and Pakistan) from going to war, Richard Betts found that nuclear blackmail — that is, threatening to use nuclear weapons against a state unless they made a concession — has rarely worked. Since the end of the Korean War, the U.S. and South Korea have been hugely successful at deterring North Korea from invading the South again. They have been much less successful in getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program or start holding free and fair elections. The North Korean regime simply values its grip on power more than it values extending its power over South Korea.

That being said, just because deterrence is easier than coercion doesn’t mean deterrence is easy. History is replete with examples of conventional deterrence failing. Why should we think nuclear weapons are any different? Fortunately, Thomas Schelling answered this question a long time ago. Specifically, he argued that what makes nuclear weapons revolutionary is not their massive destructive power per se. Since before people were food producers, it had always been possible for the victorious side in a war to exterminate their enemy’s now-defenseless population.

Still, this wasn’t always effective at deterring states from going to war. The main reason for this was that a state had to defeat its adversary’s military before it could destroy its population. Even if one state is much stronger than the other, they couldn’t be certain of successfully destroying the other side’s army. War contains a great deal of certainty. In the same vein, however, the uncertainty of war also allows leaders of weaker states to attack stronger ones if they are desperate enough.

Probably the best example of this, of course, is Imperial Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor. Most Japanese leaders understood that they were taking a huge gamble by attacking the United States, and that losing that gamble would lead to their ruin. However, they were in a desperate situation without any good options, and by definition gambles sometimes pay off.

What makes nuclear weapons so effective for deterrence purposes is that they eliminate the uncertainty in war. With nuclear weapons, states no longer have to defeat an adversary’s military to destroy its cities and citizens. Furthermore, there are no real defenses against nuclear missiles, and those missiles travel quickly. Thus, leaders know that if they use nuclear weapons against or threaten the existence of a nuclear weapon state, it is virtually certain their major cities will be destroyed within hours.

A metaphor may here be useful. And this being football season, we might as well use a football metaphor. Attacking a much more powerful non-nuclear state (like the U.S. in 1941) is akin to betting on the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl.  The Buffalo Bills have never won a Super Bowl, and their starting quarterback would be the third stringer on most teams. Thus, anyone who bets on the Bills to win the Super Bowl this year shouldn’t anticipate getting their money back. Nonetheless, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Bills somehow become a Super Bowl contender.

By contrast, threatening the existence of a state with a secure nuclear arsenal is akin to betting on the New York Yankees to win the Super Bowl this year. The New York Yankees aren’t a football team, and so they have zero chance of winning the Super Bowl. Betting on them to win the Super Bowl isn’t a gamble; it’s a donation. The same is true with threatening the existence of a nuclear-armed state. You aren’t taking a large risk that could end in the destruction of your cities. You are virtually guaranteeing the destruction of your cities. This is a bad bet no matter the expected pay off — which is why nuclear deterrence works.