Analysis & Opinions - Science

Beyond Nuclear Deterrence

| Oct. 14, 2022

In October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union squared off in what game theorist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling described as a nuclear game of “chicken” that threatened humanity’s survival. The Cuban Missile Crisis spurred six decades of efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and inspired a generation of scientists to think critically about reducing atomic risks. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent nuclear threats during the war in Ukraine are an unambiguous reminder that such dangers have outlived the Cold War. A new wave of scientific research is urgently needed to understand conditions for making global nuclear disarmament desirable and feasible.

October 1962 and October 2022 are hardly comparable. There were four nuclear-armed states then—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France. Today, there are nine, with the additions of China, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. Success containing proliferation to just nine countries came about in no small part from the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and subsequent International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. These initiatives were a direct result of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as were US–Soviet/Russian arms control agreements that reduced worldwide nuclear stockpiles from nearly 70,000 warheads in the 1980s to ∼12,700 today.

Unfortunately, nuclear reductions have now been replaced by competition. China, Russia, and the US are modernizing their arsenals, ignoring disarmament commitments in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Meanwhile, new actors, proliferation risks, and intersections between nuclear and emerging cyber and artificial intelligence technologies challenge existing deterrence and nonproliferation theories. Amid these developments, 68 countries have ratified the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which seeks to ban all nuclear weapons–related activities. Nuclear-armed states reject the treaty, citing a lack of verification measures and a volatile security environment. Simultaneously, global research funding for nuclear risk reduction is shrinking rapidly, limiting opportunities for interested scientists.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Herzog, Stephen. "Beyond nuclear deterrence." Science, vol. 378, no. 6616 (October 14, 2022): 115.


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