Updated: Feb 12
Citing Hindu scripture, Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the nuclear “Manhattan Project”, upon viewing the first Nuclear weapon test, lamented that “..the world would not be the same … a few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.” The following asserts the theory of Nuclear Peace but concludes it is flawed regarding its ability to foster international peace and stability. To develop this argument, the theory of Nuclear Peace will be explained and evaluated alongside the stability-instability paradox.
The theory of Nuclear Peace has its origins in the development of nuclear weapons. Determined to force a Japanese surrender the United States of America (U.S), deployed and detonated two nuclear bombs over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. The bombings caused an estimated 130,000 – 230,000 casualties and within days the Japanese army surrendered. The event, although demonstrably reflective of the U.S military supremacy over Japan – as well as a warning to the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R) – symbolised a revolutionary change in how warfare could be conducted. When the U.S.S.R responded by successfully creating its own nuclear weapon in 1949, the threat of a nuclear war endured during the Cold War (1945-1989). Despite the perceived escalation of risk, it became clear to both the U.S and U.S.S.R that a nuclear war was unrealistic due to the destructive consequences it would cause. It is during this period where the theory of Nuclear Peace became ubiquitously relevant.
Nuclear Peace is framed by the school of thought deriving from the theory of realism. Realism in International Relations sees the nature of the international system as anarchical. The anarchical perception of the international arena designates states as the ultimate actors in international politics, with state survival being their primary objective. Consequentially, states are inherently rational in their behaviour and decision making because the incentive to survive drives them to focus on increasing their security militarily. Nuclear Peace compliments realist theory by asserting that nuclear weapons induce international order and peace. The theory states that nuclear-armed states are less likely to engage in conflict as the outcome of any nuclear war becomes mutually unacceptable. This theory appears to be borne out by history particularly during the Cold War. During that time, significant advancements in the nuclear capabilities of the U.S.S.R and U.S provided both with second strike capabilities. If either was attacked with nuclear weapons, they could respond with their nuclear weapons guaranteeing mutually assured destruction for both sides. This dilemma is typically cited as justification for the Nuclear Peace theory because nuclear weapons during the latter era ultimately induced peace and stability.
When viewed in conjunction with the stability-instability paradox the Nuclear Peace theory contains several limitations regarding its perceived assertion of fostering international peace and stability. Nuclear Peace focuses on the role nuclear weapons play in promoting peace and stability, however, the theory can be misleading. Already it has been noted how the U.S used nuclear weapons to accelerate Japan’s surrender and to warn the U.S.S.R of U.S capabilities. Out of insecurity and fear of the U.S possession, and future use, of nuclear weapons, the U.S.S.R created its own nuclear arsenal to counter the nuclear monopoly of the U.S. Both states were clearly building their nuclear stockpiles to deter the opposing side militarily.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is considered to be an instance of the Nuclear Peace theory at work, as well as the closest the U.S.S.R and the U.S got to a nuclear war. The crisis occurred during a tense 13-day standoff between the superpowers, regarding their deployment of nuclear missiles within close proximity of each other. The U.S.A’s missile installations in Turkey and Italy prompted the U.S.S.R, to deploy their missiles to Cuba as a retaliation. It can be argued that the deployment of nuclear weapons from both sides was to deter each other from any potential attack. However, it is possible to argue that a peaceful outcome was not the motivator behind the deployments. Only when the situation escalated to the threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ did “President John F. Kennedy (U.S.A) and Premier Nikita Khrushchev (U.S.S.R)… [talk to] prevent..” nuclear war. Had Khrushchev and Kennedy been intent on using military force, they would not have engaged in communications. Thus, a peaceful outcome would have been impossible. The aftermath of the crisis saw both states establish the Moscow-Washington nuclear hotline, improving mutual communication. Before the crisis, neither side appeared willing to communicate with the other on issues like nuclear missile deployments. Only when it became clear that neither side could emerge victoriously did a desire for peace emerge. Hence, it appears that a crisis and consequent communications between leaders was needed to avert a nuclear war, as opposed to the fact of the existence of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the suggestion peace is guaranteed because nuclear weapons promote stability and peace is undermined.
Through the stability-instability paradox, the Nuclear Peace theory can be found similarly lacking in credibility. The stability-instability paradox theory largely focuses on the significance of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction theory (M.A.D) have on international relations. It argues that nuclear states are unlikely to engage in major conflicts only minor ones, such as proxy wars, as the consequences of a nuclear war are too severe. It thus appears crisis and the consequent communication between leaders was needed to avert a nuclear war, as opposed to the simple fact of the existence of nuclear weapons. Since the Second World War, there have been over 200 military conflicts resulting in millions of civilian and military casualties. The stability-instability paradox refines the Nuclear Peace theory because nuclear states recognise the need to avoid nuclear wars and the importance of preventing minor conflicts from escalating into major ones. A quantitative evaluation of this paradox concluded how “Nuclear Weapons do not affect the frequency of conflict … [only its] timing, intensity and outcome”. This statement is supported by evidence provided by Cold War era ‘proxy wars’.
Proxy wars during the Cold War, like the Vietnam War (1959-1975), and the Korean War (1950-1953), highlight the limitations of the Nuclear Peace theory. Officially a war between the Communist North and anti-Communist South Vietnamese, the war also indirectly pitted the U.S.S.R, supporting the North Vietnamese, against the U.S.A who supported the South Vietnamese. This was indeed a proxy war due to the enduring and active relationship the U.S and U.S.S.R had with their respective allies. Although the Vietnam War did not lead to a direct conflict between the two superpowers or indeed escalate into nuclear war, casualties for both sides have been estimated at just over a million. The earlier Korean War of 1950-1953 also saw the U.S support the anti-Communist south with the Communist North supported by the U.S.S.R. Casualties for this conflict have also been estimated at over a million. Judging by these two hot wars’ non-nuclear war can result in serious casualties. With reference to the stability-instability paradox, however, Nuclear Peace theory cannot be easily dismissed.
Referring to the Korean and Vietnam wars specifically, it is clear nuclear weapons were not used even when the U.S.S.R and the U.S were involved. However, as Rauchhaus asserts, the chances two nuclear states will engage in a major nuclear conflict are low. Although the existence of two nuclear states may not prevent non-nuclear conflicts, it appears that nuclear weapons to prevent the conflict from escalating into a nuclear one. The paradox theory provides a more sophisticated understanding of the role nuclear states have in fostering stability and peace in the international system. It also highlights, however, that as demonstrated by the Vietnam and Korean Wars, that non-nuclear conflicts, are still capable of occurring. There are also limitations with the stability-instability paradox which allow for further critiques of the Nuclear Peace theory.
Rather than act as a justification for nuclear weapons facilitating international peace and stability, Sagan suggests one should celebrate how a nuclear war between the U.S and U.S.S.R was avoided. Nuclear Peace theory and the stability-instability paradox reveal flawed dependencies on key assumptions. Already noted is the core foundation of the Nuclear Peace theory; that, nuclear opponents mutually agree to avoid nuclear conflict because of M.A.D theory. This assumes nuclear state actors always act rationally and recognise the threat and consequences M.A.D would incur. In the context of the Cold War, however, are various examples where these assumptions appear naive. For instance, the context and acceleration of tension, with regard to the deployment of both sides’ nuclear missiles, in both the lead up to and during, the Cuban Crisis surprised both states. Even though the crisis centred around each side’s handling of their nuclear weapons, the actions both leaders took suggest an unstable and risky scenario which could have easily resulted in an irrational or accidental decision from either leader, leading to disastrous consequences. The limitations of Nuclear Peace theory are also undermined with reference to the ‘madman theory’.
In a bid to underline U.S authority and power, the Nixon administration applied the “madman theory” in alarming fashion. Nixon proposed this approach to his colleagues, stating how “I want the North Vietnamese to believe … I might do anything to stop the [Vietnam W]ar… hand on the nuclear button … [forcing them to come to] Paris …. begging for peace.” By projecting an irrationally unstable character in President Nixon, the theory was that Vietnam’s Communist leaders would commit to peace talks with the U.S over the Vietnam War. Although Nixon was intentionally extrapolating a volatile and irrational caricature of himself as a way to bring an end to an already disastrous U.S military effort in Indochina, the theory has been criticised. Sagan argues that the strategy was misleading and dangerous because it could have been easily misunderstood by the U.S.S.R. and its allies. In addition, the theory increased the risk of potential accidents regarding the U.S military’s deployment of nuclear-armed aircraft above Vietnam. A human error due to a lack of clarity about the madman theory would have lead to a nuclear war.
There is an argument that Nixon’s madman theory neither succeeded nor failed because no nuclear conflict ensued, but equally, peace was not attained. In the present context, distinguishing calculated madman theory practitioners from actual unstable state actors becomes harder to discern. This is particularly the case regarding current U.S President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. In addition, Russell rejects Waltz’s argument that stability in the Middle East is secured by granting Iran access to nuclear weapons. Russell claims M.A.D is highly plausible in the post-Cold War era, as a theocracy like Iran could view nuclear weapons as a means for war rather than deterrence. Emphasising these concerns further is the potential for nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of non-state actors or terrorist groups, which almost certainly would destabilise the international system and hinder the spread of international peace. The arbitrary behaviour non-nuclear states espouse, compared to the more cautious approach nuclear states take with regard to international affairs, should also be considered when evaluating whether nuclear weapons promote stability and peace. Either way, Nuclear Peace in a post-Cold War era is evidently far from guaranteed. Thakur summarises the main flaw in MAD theory as “for nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time. For nuclear Armageddon … [these] mechanisms need to break down … once”. Nuclear Peace theory, therefore, highlights key limitations regarding its dependency on M.A.D theory which may occasionally detach itself from reality.
Since the “Manhattan Project”, nuclear weapons have certainly shaped international relations. The rivalry between the nuclear states of the U.S and U.S.S.R saw a transformation in nuclear strategy culminating in the Nuclear Peace theory. Initial nuclear deployments by both powers were done to deter each other from attack. However, the Cuban Missile Crisis showed how a peaceful resolution was far from guaranteed. Per, the stability-instability paradox, the theory appears misleading as it appears nuclear weapons only prevents nuclear conflicts, rather than all conflicts. Furthermore, Nuclear Peace theory relies heavily on a rational nuclear state. Regarding the risks of potentially nuclear-armed theocracies or non-state actors, in the post-Cold War era, this is far from certain. Thankfully no nuclear conflict has occurred, and to a certain extent, Nuclear Peace theory can be warranted. However, an over-reliance on nuclear proliferation to achieve stability and peace in the international system should be avoided.
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