The Diminishing Reassurance Of Mutually-Assured Destruction

During the mid to late-20th century, mutually-assured destruction (MAD) deterrence theory was the strongest reassurance against the threat of nuclear attacks. Although MAD has maintained the balance of nuclear power and has aided us in avoiding nuclear war thus far, the rise of extreme or impulsive leaders increased technological capabilities, and the escalation of non-state terrorist actors have positioned MAD on a precarious ledge. The threat to and potential failure of MAD does not guarantee that a nuclear world war will occur, but we cannot continue to rely on policy based off of a theory that may not prevail much longer. Policymakers need to search for new strategies outside of historical theory to mitigate the looming threat of nuclear war.

Since the beginning of the Cold War, nations have relied on mutually-assured destruction as a comfort that a full-out nuclear war would never occur. MAD dictates that because a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by more than one side would result in a complete destruction of all the sides involved, neither state will initiate an attack. The concept is a type of deterrence theory, in which neither side has the incentive to either initiate conflict or disarm their weapons due to the threat of an enemy’s retaliation. It also revolves around the assumption that both sides have the same capabilities and are able to demonstrate that they have that capability to destroy the other. Each participant has to grow and maintain a nuclear capability to guarantee retaliation if attacked first, so neither will risk the first strike.

The first two World Wars were total wars, meaning nations used all available technology and did not always discriminate between civilians and soldiers. These wars were devastating, especially with the U.S.’s nuclear bombing in Japan, but the global community did not have the threat of multiple countries’ nuclear arsenal involved as they do now. If we were to have a total war today, there would be nothing left of humanity.

The Cold War was an era in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a 50-year long struggle that never resulted in direct violence between the two nations. They both participated in the arms race and garnered the nuclear capability to completely destroy the other. As the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. both retained first and second-strike capabilities, the Cold War ended without a third world war. To this day, and with more countries stockpiling nuclear weapons, MAD continues to prevail in security policy around the world.

Even though MAD has succeeded in keeping the possibility of a nuclear war at bay, we could be heading towards a new era of uncertainty. The theory, like many deterrence theories, rests on the assumption that actors are rational, weighing the costs and benefits and making decisions accordingly. Even if only one irrational actor emerges in today’s political landscape, that would throw off the balance that MAD relies on and could initiate a global nuclear war. World leaders, however, do not have to be irrational to potentially cause a nuclear war.

Although some argue that Trump and Kim Jong Un are irrational actors, there is insufficient evidence to show that either has acted outside of rational, albeit risky, considerations. Trump’s political comments are often concerning and Kim Jong Un’s cruelty towards both his own people and the United States seems to come from an unreasonable or imprudent context, but we cannot label their rhetoric as insane or crazy. Doing so creates an erroneous stipulation that leaders have to be insane for deterrence theory to fail, which downplays the likelihood of something as simple as impulsive decision-making or mistakes leading to a nuclear war. A writer for The Washington Post asks “whether we really think that no leader would ever be so reckless as to plunge us into the nuclear abyss and that mutually assured destruction can be safely relied upon indefinitely to preserve the peace?”

Furthermore, the evolution of technological capabilities is paramount to the new nuclear threat. Advanced technology in different spaces – that is, in particular, cyberspace and outer space – threatens the stability of the global climate. National Review analyzes these two fields in terms of second-strike capability, which is necessary for MAD’s success. Countries are developing technologies in cyberspace that have the ability to delay potential launches; even if the missiles are delayed by a few seconds, that could allow time for a maximum-arsenal retaliation. Additionally, new missile advancements threaten the nuclear balance. With the ability to destroy a country’s nuclear stockpile before they have the chance to respond, the attacker could fire nuclear weapons without fear of retaliation, thus eliminating the very foundation of mutually-assured destruction.

Outer space played a role during the Cold War during the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, mainly for exploration and scientific advancement purposes. Today, it houses the early-warning systems and nuclear command centres of countries like the U.S. New satellite technologies gives states the ability to harm these important nuclear systems. The systems are essential for second-strike capability, and without them, countries would be unable to retaliate against a threat, making it less risky for a country to initiate a strike.

Moreover, the rise of non-state actors in the realm of terrorism significantly interferes with MAD. There are two aspects of this concern: the possibility of a terrorist organization gaining nuclear weapons, and the threat of attacks on nuclear sites. The first is a threat because terrorists have already tried to obtain radioactive material to make dirty bombs, and possession of a nuclear weapon would be even more devastating. Non-state actors do not adhere to traditional state interactions like negotiations and diplomacy; they employ tactics such as suicide bombers that do not have the main goal of survival that states traditionally maintain. A terrorist with a nuclear bomb may be unconcerned about retaliation or second-strike capabilities if their goal is simply to kill others and achieve martyrdom. Some scholars do not think this is an immediate threat because nuclear arsenals are typically well-protected, but the second concern regarding non-state actors and attacks on nuclear sites is still very real. An attack on a nuclear power plant would cause a massive release of toxic radiation and could have similar long-term effects as a nuclear weapon.

Unfortunately, what is most concerning is that even the threat of the failure of mutually-assured destruction, let alone actual failure, raises the risk of a nuclear attack. If one country, for whatever reason, does not feel threatened by mutually-assured destruction, they may not adhere to the theory. As a global community, we can no longer rely on MAD to prevent a nuclear war because it is not guaranteed and its effectiveness decreases every day. Increased communication, diplomacy, and peaceful negotiations will help fortify international security over time, but we also need to have more discussion about contingencies when MAD is no longer a viable option. Eliminating nuclear weapons altogether is not necessarily a feasible solution right now, but we need to either find ways to preserve MAD or develop new deterrence doctrines. If we continue on our current path, mutually-assured destruction will become just a theory in a history textbook, not a safeguard against nuclear war.

Jenna Rosenthal