The Perils of Nuclear Peace

Erik Gartzke raises a terrific question concerning nuclear peace. If more countries acquire a second-strike nuclear capability, fewer pairs of countries will fight. Russia has such a capability; China probably has one; India might attain one as its rise continues. If we treat the European Union as a sort of superstate, it has a robust nuclear deterrent as well (in the form of the British and French arsenals). Does this not bode well for the future? As we know, Kenneth Waltz answers in the affirmative.[1]

But I’m not sure optimism is called for. First, one can acknowledge (as I do) that nuclear deterrence has worked without accepting that it must always work. Perhaps a desperate nuclear-armed leader will lapse into irrationality; before committing suicide the (instrumentally) rational Hitler ordered that Germany be destroyed in punishment for its not being worthy of him. Perhaps a failure of command and control, such as that immortalized in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, could take place. Picture Slim Pickens riding that Bomb as it falls out of the B-52. The rub is that if nuclear deterrence fails only once, the consequences could be unprecedentedly catastrophic. Perhaps there is only a 0.5 percent chance of a failure of deterrence over the next century, but in the case of nuclear weapons we need to distinguish that low figure from zero.

Second, there is the question raised by Bartosz Stanislawski of non-state actors getting hold of a nuclear weapon. Scott Sagan and others have written about the problem of loose nukes – weapons, fissile material, and so on being insecure in some states such as Pakistan or Iran. These could get into the hands of terrorists who are hard to find and hence hard to deter. We know that al Qaeda wants a nuclear weapon. We know about the A.Q. Khan network run out of Pakistan. In other words, I think that Professor Stanislawski’s basic point that catastrophes can happen even during virtuous trends is a good one, especially as concerns nuclear weapons.

While I’m responding, I’ll mention how much I appreciate Erik’s use of centuries of data to show that the trend away from wars is a long-term one. The trends are especially striking because the number of political units, and hence the occasions for war, has increased. This set me thinking about the macro-trends in world history. If the big powers do have less and less incentive to fight, what is reducing their incentives? Was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of History” argument right after all?


[1] See for example Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed (N.Y.: Norton, 2002).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Andrew Mack outlines a dramatic decline over the last several decades in the number of battlefield deaths and of wars overall. Reason, he argues, for cautious optimism. He reviews several arguments for why this decline has taken place. He dismisses the “nuclear peace” theory, noting that the world’s nuclear powers have been involved in many wars. He suggests that several other things may be driving the trend. First, democracies tend not to fight one another, and there are more democracies now. Second, the gains that nations realize from international trade now far exceed those they could otherwise realize through plunder. In our era, conquest doesn’t pay like it used to. International support of insurgent groups shriveled after the Cold War. And International peacekeeping institutions grew. Mack argues that while each has its partisans, these explanations are not mutually exclusive.

Response Essays

  • Erik Gartzke argues that modern states have engaged in fewer and less deadly wars because it is now very often more profitable to trade than to plunder. The wave of midcentury wars had two causes; these wars were often either anticolonial conflicts, in which the great powers effectively surrendered their strategies of plunder, or ideological proxy conflicts stemming from the Cold War (or, of course, a mixture of both). Yet neither cause obtains much anymore. Today’s wars tend to be between poorer, less militarily capable countries, with the great powers acting in a policing role. Whether this trend continues will depend to a great extent on the trajectory of the economically rising east Asian states.

  • John Owen agrees that both democratic peace theory and commercial peace theory have some explanatory power, and that both of them may be working in tandem right now. But what started the virtuous circle? Is there a deeper explanation? Owen suggests that U.S. hegemony is that underlying factor. Hegemonic peace theory is distasteful to many, in that it claims one nation must be richer and more powerful than the rest to set the world at peace. Though distasteful, it might still be correct; if so, we should not welcome the decline of American hegemony.

  • Bartosz Stanislawski offers a mixed assessment of today’s human security picture. Although wars have become fewer and less deadly, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. Nonstate actors are of particular concern today, in that, while states’ behavior may be modeled rationally, groups with an eccentric ideological or religious motivation cannot be so modeled. The result, obviously, is insecurity. The role of the mass media is also important, in his view. While much progress has been made, and while that progress is underreported, the media tend strongly to report violent conflict in a way that fills up the 24-hour news cycle. The result can be unjustified pessimism. Neither it nor its counterpart, unjustified optimism, is warranted.