Do more nuclear weapons make the world a safer place? Since 1945, nuclear weapons have underpinned the global balance of power. This episode explores the development and practice of nuclear deterrence.

Foundation of Nuclear Deterrence

Developed in the Cold War, the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine is the foundation of nuclear deterrence theory. MAD is the concept that two nuclear-armed nations will not strike each other under the understanding that nuclear war would annihilate both nations.

MAD only works if both sides can withstand a nuclear strike and then strike back. Both sides must possess a credible threat – both the capability and willingness to strike back. But even under the relative stability of MAD, nations are still subject miscalculations and mistakes when interpreting the adversary’s intentions, which could lead to escalation and nuclear warfare.

Nuclear Deterrence in a Multi-Polar World

As nuclear technology spread, nations adopted different policies to confront their specific geopolitical situations. China developed its nuclear arsenal in the 1960s with the understanding it could not match the United States or Soviet Union in their nuclear arms race. Instead, it advanced a minimal deterrent strategy, which used a smaller number of nuclear weapons to threaten the “lowest level of damage” necessary to deter attack.

Pakistan and India face bipolar nuclear tensions. Both countries began developing and testing nuclear weapons in the 1970s, and even demonstrated capabilities in the 1990s. Although they exist in a multipolar world, their nuclear strategies only seek to deter each other.

Dig Deeper

Want to dive deeper into nuclear deterrence? Check out these articles:

About the Author
Drew Casey received his M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University’s Elliott School. He is the Director of Development for Matters of State and a regular episode contributor. He previously graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in International Business. Drew has lived in multiple major cities in the U.S. and spent a year and a half teaching English in China.