nuclear deterrence stability paradox

Written by Maryam Yasmeen 8:34 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Pakistan, Published Content

Nuclear Deterrence & the Stability Paradox

The tragic event of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to a military revolution, altering the chief purpose of the military from winning wars to averting them through deterrence. Deterrence is a strategy largely deployed to avert potential nuclear conflicts hence providing the safe contoured illusion of strategic stability. Maryam Yasmeen navigates theories, arguments, and case studies to understand nuclear deterrence and the paradox of stability that it creates.
About the Author(s)
+ posts
Maryam Yasmeen is a student of International Relations at Kinnaird College, Lahore. She has published multiple articles on various issues and topics related to global politics. She aims to achieve excellence as a writer, researcher, and academic in the field of International Relations and cyber security.


It is amidst the nuclear environment that the strategic stability of the international system is derived and the balance of power is maintained in the name of deterrence; deterrence which fulfills the role of being, either a practice for security maintenance by averting any potential conflicts, or a practice of exhausting the threshold to incite conflicts.

“The art of producing in the mind of your enemy the fear of an attack is referred to as deterrence”. Peter George

This is particularly true in the region of South Asia, where Pakistan and India with their nuclear ambitions combined with a rivalry, make the region a potential nuclear flashpoint, given that both states continue to deter each other. Whether this deterrence brings strategic stability or the opposite is a question debated in this essay. It is first important to take stock of deterrence itself, its theory and practice in order to assess what it was, what it is, and where it might be headed in security affairs.

Deterrence: An Evolution

Deterrence, or commonly referred to as a defense, is a state’s military practice to avoid conflicts by threatening the enemy state’s offense with an offense. Deterrence in the international system is an old practice applied by major powers to prevent major wars via smaller wars in an effort to maintain a balance of power. In the past, it was upheld by structures like that of hegemonic and collective security systems and great power concerted under a multi-polar world order.

Also Read:  The Unrelenting Indian Separatist Movements: From Khalistan to Nagaland

However, deterrence never was the order of the day, as constant wars were always the face of acquiring security. The idea significantly picked pace in the 20th century alongside the apprehensions of the destructiveness of wars in the face of the growing lethality of weapons. New weapons paved the way for innovation in military affairs through a change in the very doctrines, organizations, and operations. This is when deterrence as a strategy came to the frontier of the military, while deterrence as a theory was subsequently developed during the latter 20th century with the advancements of the cold war, providing the increasingly alarming advancements of the world becoming ‘nuclear.’

Deterrence Theory

Theoretically developed in the contentious era of the cold war, deterrence significantly took a toll on the international system as being a strategy and a practice to deter the enemy in an effort to prevent the outbreak of a violent war. Throughout the cold war, US and USSR both essentially continued to deter one another in the face of nuclear proliferation.

This strategy of deterrence thus continued to stabilize the bipolar world, with no major, global war or nuclear skirmishes being held. It was in this context that the classical deterrence theory emerged, with Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling, William Kaufman, Albert Wohlstetter, and Morgenstern as its key strategic thinkers.

Based upon the notions of severity, certainty, and celerity, deterrence, in essence, is an act of balance reflected in a state’s threat to reciprocate the attack on the adversary power. It is the way to deter one’s enemy to not act in a way it would like to do otherwise by making use of ‘deterrence by denial’ and ‘deterrence by punishment’, thus reflecting the practice of ‘realpolitik’ which so was witnessed at the height of the cold war.

Kenneth vs Sagan Debate of Strategic Stability

The deterrence theory is constituted upon nuclear weapons and strategic balance, the two pillars upon which this global nirvana rests, given that both are considered to be complementing each other and thus creating an order of peace and stability. This is an assumption asserted by some and negated by others giving rise to a debate about nuclear weapons and alliance systems.

Also Read:  The Implications of the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

It is the debate claimed as Kenneth vs Sagan debate of strategic stability, with the former asserting the assumption of a ‘nuclear shield’ that nuclear weapons are vital for resolving conflicts through ‘mutually assured destruction’ which discourages the potential nuclear exchange. The latter, however, claims for the wide non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, providing that the use of nuclear weapons would lead to a planetary nuclear crisis rooted in the speculation of ‘nuclear accidents’ and the first strike.

Nuclear Deterrence

‘If you hit me, I will hit you harder and if you bomb my cities, I will bomb yours.’ Such are the kinds of threats claimed to be the idea of deterrence, given that it serves the aim to deter an adversary by threatening an all-out retaliation in case an offense is carried out. Nuclear deterrence takes an even graver form promising a nuclear catastrophe in any offense or defense.

Despite being an article of faith in which many adherents take refugee from the probability of a potential nuclear war, many have called nuclear deterrence a mirage in its essence, that it creates a paradox of strategic stability and instability. This endorses a debate popularly known as the ‘deterrence paradox’; an idea that became mainstream during the cold war era; an era dominated by bloc politics, with each bloc deterring the other and thus maintaining a strategic balance.

It was amidst this nuclearity that bloc politics found a basis in deterrence and didn’t escalate into a war that would have otherwise resulted in a nuclear crisis. Such was the case in Cuba in 1962 when even in its all likelihood, a nuclear disaster was balanced out through deterrence. Many strategists argue that such a competition is a two-way street, which can either lead to either stability or instability, hence the paradox.

Such a paradox is essentially the picture of nuclearized South Asia which has led to the existence of grave deficiencies and power asymmetries in the region and thus a paradox. The level of nuclear deterrence in South Asia can be analyzed through the nuclear postures of India and Pakistan. The former has an open and declared nuclear doctrine, while the latter has its doctrine vague and ambiguous, making it strategically adaptable. This, in turn, maximizes the nuclear threshold which minimizes nuclear deterrence, engulfing the region in a paradox of stability-instability and security-insecurity.

Also Read:  The Foreign Policy of India: Mirroring the Strategies of Chanakya Kautilya


Amidst the ongoing discussions of lethal autonomous weapons, with drone swarms, cyber tactics, artificial intelligence, and weaponization of outer space as the ultimate science fiction thriller, the idea of nuclear weapons seems as retro as landline and nuclear deterrence almost seems to be a relic of the past, an artifact for the reminiscence of the cold war era, the time characterized by proliferation in nuclear activity.

However, a resurgence can be witnessed in the face of growing nuclear programs in many states. Deterrence is not necessarily a stable phenomenon as it often leads to total wars, but nuclear deterrence in contrast is what is claimed to be an insurance of stability, given that the alternative would be a nuclear war.

The key is to essentially balance the strategic forces by stockpiling ballistic missiles so that the need might arrive to use them in the face of a grave threat by an enemy. The weapons are kept at the edge while threats to use them are constantly invigorated to keep an environment of deterrence so that no actual war takes place. Such was the situation in Cuba in 1962, and such is the case in South Asia as well.

However, many strategists claim that this sequence has a high chance of breaking down, given that either by accident or by intention, a nuclear crisis could occur. In the face of such a paradox of stability, the idea of deterrence seems a reasonable foundation in theory, but in practice, such a foundation when incorporated seems hostile.

If you want to submit your articles and/or research papers, please check the Submissions page.

The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

(Visited 748 times, 1 visits today)
Click to access the login or register cheese