Spring 2020

On Adapting Nuclear Deterrence to Reduce Nuclear Risk

Brad Roberts

Since the end of the Cold War, changes to the practice of nuclear deterrence by the United States have been pursued as part of a comprehensive approach aimed at reducing nuclear risks. These changes have included steps to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. defense and deterrence strategies. Looking to the future, the United States can do more, but only if the conditions are right. Policy-makers must avoid steps that have superficial appeal but would actually result in a net increase in nuclear risk. These include steps that make U.S. nuclear deterrence unreliable for the problems for which it remains relevant. 

Brad Roberts is Director of the Center for Global Security Research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. From April 2009 to March 2013, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, in which role he served as Policy Director of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and Ballistic Missile Defense Review. He is the author of The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (2015) and has recently published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and The Washington Quarterly.

In a strategy to reduce nuclear risks, there are many building blocks: formal and informal arms control, cooperative threat-reduction activities, and controls on sensitive materials, technologies, and facilities, for example. The focus of this essay is one single building block: the practice of nuclear deterrence by the United States. In one of their seminal op-eds in The Wall Street Journal, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn made the case in 2011 that reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence “is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective” and called for “a joint enterprise among nations” to work toward “a safer and more stable form of deterrence.” Nearly a decade later, there is little evidence of that “joint enterprise,” as Russia, China, and others proved reluctant to join any such effort. But what about the United States? How far has it gone toward the envisioned goal? What has the United States done to modify its practice of nuclear deterrence to reduce nuclear risks and dangers, while ensuring that deterrence remains stable and effective for the problems for which it remains relevant? How has it accounted for the failure of the “joint enterprise?” What more should be done? What more can be done in current circumstances?

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