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"No Way Out": Nuclear Weapons Remain An Important Factor in International Politics

During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the American movie director Stanley Kubrick decided to emigrate with his family to Australia. He had read that in the event of a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers, Australia would be the place with the least radioactive fallout. However, when Kubrick, who had already ordered more than one hundred suitcases for his journey, found out that there was only one shared bathroom for every two cabins on the ship to Australia, he cancelled the trip. For the film-maker – a man plagued by all manner of phobias – the thought of having to share a bathroom with strangers suddenly seemed worse than the fear of dying in a nuclear inferno. Kubrick stayed in the United States – and a short time afterward worked through his fears of nuclear war in his satirical masterpiece Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Nuclear dilemmas

On the face of it, Kubrick’s behavior seems utterly contradictory. Such was his embarrassment that the friend in whom he confided this episode only published details of it after Kubrick’s death. But even though the American director was doubtless an eccentric character, his inner conflict cannot be held too much against him. Nuclear weapons are the absolute embodiment of contradiction. Their enormous destructive power makes their use latently sui­cidal. Yet it is precisely these potentially disastrous consequences that exercise a form of restraint over the international community. Thus the nuclear age has produced many conventional wars, but two nuclear powers have not yet used nuclear weapons against each other. Nuclear deterrence cannot prevent every type of war, but it is always present when existential issues are at stake. As the former U.S. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger accurately noted, in this sense nuclear weapons are “used” every day.

Orthodox security policy therefore “uses” the destructive potential of atomic weapons to prevent war, and, for this reason, considers them to be morally and ethically justifiable. In this school of thought, the fact that nuclear weapons have not been used again for over seven decades, and that no major conventional wars have taken place between nuclear powers and their allies, suggests that nuclear deterrence actually works. Purely conventional deterrence, on the other hand – as shown by the entire history of war – is highly unreliable. Therefore anyone who condemns nuclear deterrence as being ethically unjustifiable has to stand accused of actually encouraging the return of large-scale conventional warfare – which of course is not exactly an ethically impeccable position either.

For the critics, these orthodox security policy arguments are irrelevant. They believe it is only a matter of time before nuclear weapons are used – either deliberately or by accident. Some will grant that the nuclear threat does have an impact on preventing war. But since the threat of nuclear force is indissolubly linked with preparations for the real use of these weapons, for such critics even the mere threat of nuclear disaster is morally unacceptable.1 It is all the more unacceptable given that nuclear weapons make it practically impossible to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants – a distinction that is essential to any discussion of just war. Therefore, as the Catholic bishops in the United States argued in 1983, for example, nuclear deterrence is still acceptable only as an auxiliary construct and for a transitional period at most. In their view, for military and ethical reasons, it is not a permanent solution. Ultimately the only way to avoid a nuclear disaster is to abolish all nuclear weapons.2

A world without nuclear weapons?

In light of these considerations, there have been repeated attempts in recent times to place the abolition of nuclear weapons high on the international agenda. U.S. President Barack Obama embraced the vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world. Through an elaborate political choreography, he attempted to regain the initiative in nuclear non-proliferation and arms control, which had faded under his predecessor George W. Bush. High-profile major events (“nuclear summits”) were staged to raise global awareness of nuclear dangers. Nuclear modernization projects were suspended. America talked and acted as if it were a pioneer in nuclear disarmament. Just a short time after entering office, Obama even received the Nobel Peace Prize – effectively an advance on his anticipated future disarmament successes. The Global Zero campaign swelled as scientists and academics fell over themselves to write the nuclear-weapon-free world into existence. Under the sway of an imaginary zeitgeist, the numerous problems standing in the way of abolishing nuclear weapons were trivialized. This created the impression that all it would take would be a few political decisions, and the world would be liberated from nuclear weapons.

Obama’s policy failed at every turn. No other nuclear power wanted to follow the American example. America’s allies felt uneasy, having for decades sought security under the U.S. “nuclear umbrella”. Nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea continued unhindered. Instead, the U.S. found that its bombastic disarmament posturing was undermining its own role in the global order. By constantly invoking the danger presented by nuclear weapons, the U.S. was delegitimizing its own nuclear defense and alliance policy, while making no progress toward any new, non-nuclear security policy. This was particularly the case since the public showed little interest in such matters. Abolishing nuclear weapons remained an elite project without a powerful grassroots movement that could have exerted pressure to change established policy.3

The deterioration of the international environment, as symbolized by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, did the rest: by the end of Obama’s second term in office, the U.S. was once again investing in the comprehensive modernization of its nuclear arsenal. At the same time, it warned its allies against joining the initiative for the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, also known as the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty). Nothing showed the disappointment in the course of events more clearly than the demand by two members of the Nobel Committee that Obama should give back his prize.

Ban the bomb?

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) attempts to bring about a nuclear-weapons-free world in a completely different way, namely by banning nuclear weapons altogether. Its supporters concede that such a treaty cannot in itself lead to the abolition of nuclear weapons. But the aim is to criminalize and delegitimize this category of weapons so as to create an international climate that puts the nuclear powers under ever greater moral pressure. However, this argument fails to recognize that a policy based on mobilizing public opinion can only be put into practice in democratic societies. The idea that a “managed democracy” (Vladimir Putin) or a dictatorship like North Korea could be moved by public opinion to give up its nuclear weapons seems very far-fetched, even thinking long-term. But in any case, the draft treaty itself, along with numerous statements by representatives of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), feed the suspicion that the movement is concerned less with global issues than with delegitimizing the three Western nuclear powers and their cooperation in NATO.4

The negative consequences of a ban treaty for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are also played down. Despite its shortcomings, the NPT is the only (almost) universally recognized framework for controlling which countries have or do not have nuclear weapons. While the TPNW refers to the NPT multiple times, several of its provisions are diametrically opposed to the NPT. For example, the ban on the possession of nuclear weapons contradicts the NPT, which recognizes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council as nuclear-weapon states. The TPNW also prohibits any kind of nuclear cooperation, such as has been practiced in NATO for decades, and which is compliant with the NPT. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would not become superfluous if nuclear weapons were banned, but it would lose its essential core: the hard-won compromise between nuclear powers and non-nuclear states on non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. If the security policy of the nuclear-weapon states and their allies were to be declared “illegal”, as it were, the NPT would lose precisely the flexibility that made its universality possible in the first place.

Like President Obama before them, ICAN also received the Nobel Peace Prize. Once again, the prize was presented not for an achievement, but for an attitude that was felt to be politically correct. But this path will not lead to a nuclear-weapon-free world either. Since the nuclear powers (and their allies) cannot be bound by a treaty which they persistently reject, the TPNW will achieve nothing except to widen the gulf between nuclear powers and non-nuclear powers. This is particularly the case since the treaty contains scant indication of how these weapons are actually supposed to be decommissioned, and how this disarmament can be reliably verified. Instead, its apologists are content to formulate extensive lists of prohibitions, with the primary aim of making nuclear cooperation between NATO allies impossible. Apart from that, the principle of hope applies.

Deterrence folklore

Finally, the attempt to analytically refute the concept of deterrence and thus remove the main obstacle on the path to a nuclear-weapons-free world is also likely to fail. In some ways, questions of nuclear deterrence are questions of faith, because – fortunately – there is hardly any empirical data on the subject. But to conclude from this that the absence of empirical evidence allows for any opinion would be mistaken. To assume that the lack of rain has something to do with the complexity of the weather remains more plausible than to suppose that the sun dance of a shaman is the reason for the drought. Intellectual discipline is particularly called for when it comes to questions that have no conclusive answer. Yet it is precisely this intellectual discipline that is lacking. The number of studies seeking to prove that nuclear deterrence is a myth has risen sharply in recent years.5 Yet the political end often justifies the academic means. Thus the selected examples of the “failure” of deterrence are not plausible enough to be truly convincing. For example, the fact that Japan capitulated only several days after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been interpreted as proof of the ineffectiveness of nuclear deterrence. Yet to take this view is to try to politically instrumentalize an event that occurred before the system of nuclear deterrence had formed. Hence this says little about its effectiveness.6

And there is more. Already in Obama’s time, this deterrence revisionism was intended to pave the way for nuclear disarmament. Yet this approach always runs into trouble as soon as specific cases are considered. For example, where nuclear deterrence compensates for a conventional imbalance between two rivals, denuclearization would be an invitation to war. Where new nuclear powers are currently emerging, as in Asia or the Middle East, only the American “nuclear umbrella” prevents the countries neighboring North Korea or Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The importance of the U.S.’ promise of nuclear protection is illustrated by the examples of South Korea and Taiwan. In the 1970s, Seoul’s doubts about the promise of American protection led to the initiation of a secret nuclear program. Only a massive diplomatic intervention by Washington, culminating in the threat of terminating the bilateral security alliance, put an end to this episode. Developments in Taiwan followed a similar course. Immediately after the first successful Chinese test in 1964, a civilian nuclear program was launched that could also have produced weapons-grade plutonium. The program was only canceled when the U.S. intervened politically. If such situations are ignored in order to declare nuclear deterrence irrelevant, then disappointment is inevitable.

The continuing importance of nuclear weapons

All attempts to achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world have so far failed, and there are many reasons to suppose that nothing will change in the foreseeable future. Nuclear weapons have by no means lost their importance for security policy. On the contrary. All nuclear powers are modernizing their arsenals. Pakistan, conventionally inferior to its arch-rival India, is now even introducing tactical nuclear weapons into its armed forces. North Korea has developed long-range missiles that can reach the United States. Nor has Iran, the missile programs of which were not covered by the nuclear deal it signed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, given up its nuclear ambitions.7 But the most dramatic evidence of the continuing importance of nuclear weapons is provided by Russia. For years, the country has employed an offensive nuclear rhetoric that gives cause for concern. Speaking on the anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea, President Putin announced that he had been prepared to put the Russian nuclear forces on alert during the crisis in March 2014. It should have become clear to all at this point, if it was not already, that it will likely be some time before nuclear weapons are abolished.

The main reason for the undiminished importance of nuclear weapons lies in the structure of international politics itself. Visions of disarmament are based on normative wishful thinking, neglecting the very dimension of international relations that in the end always turns out to be most important: the quest for national security. The nuclear option remains a latent temptation, especially for states that find themselves in a difficult regional environment. The path to a nuclear-weapons-free world therefore first requires solving the security problems underlying the desire for nuclear weapons.

Many proponents of a nuclear-weapons-free world acknowledge this point, and have repeatedly pointed out that resolving regional security issues is an integral part of their vision. But they are unable to explain convincingly why previously unsolvable problems in the Middle East, between India and Pakistan, or between North and South Korea, should suddenly become solvable in the context of nuclear disarmament. It is not surprising, therefore, that supporters of total nuclear disarmament have not yet found convincing answers to the three key questions: How do you get to zero? How do you stay at zero, in a world where the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons still exists? And how do you create security, given the frequent failure of conventional deterrence?

Proponents of a world without nuclear weapons try to give the impression that nuclear disarmament is an overriding goal of the entire international community, and can therefore be immunized against political adversities. But in political reality, no such hierarchy of interests exists whereby nuclear disarmament is permanently at the top of the agenda. Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation are only parts of a more comprehensive foreign and security policy. This means, however, that the success of this policy depends to a large degree on the international political and economic climate. Put concretely, a dispute with China about the Dalai Lama, a Russian intervention in Ukraine, or a worsening of the situation in Pakistan or the Middle East could bring about a change in the political climate that renders all global disarmament plans worthless overnight. However enticing a political vision of disarmament may be, sooner or later it will be overshadowed or even supplanted by other issues.

German sensitivities

Germany has benefited from the power of nuclear weapons for over 60 years. As a member of NATO, the Federal Republic is under the nuclear protection of the United States. Since the end of the Cold War, however, this role has hardly been discussed anymore. For years, a security policy debate leading to little more than empty phrases (“take on more responsibility”) has largely ignored the nuclear issue. Following the self-destructive debate about the deployment of Intermediate Range Nuclear Missiles in Europe in the 1980s, political discourse has petered out into general calls for disarmament and occasional criticisms of the nuclear powers’ policy as it is felt to be contradictory. Challenges such as the Iranian or North Korean nuclear program play only a minor part in the debate in Germany. People think and act conventionally – in the fullest sense of the word.

Nevertheless, the German Federal Government supports the stronger emphasis on the importance of nuclear deterrence in the relevant NATO documents. It can also be assumed that Berlin will not change Germany’s role in “nuclear sharing” within NATO.8 Finally, the Federal Republic did not take part in the international TPNW negotiations, explaining in unusually explicit terms that this would have negative impacts on the NPT, while also underlining the continuing importance of nuclear deterrence within NATO. NATO, meanwhile, in the view of all of its members, will remain a “nuclear alliance” for as long as nuclear weapons exist.

For the time being, there is no nuclear alternative for Germany. A “European nuclear option” has been repeatedly suggested, but nevertheless remains a chimera. Europe has been battered by economic crises and populist temptations. To think that now of all times it could crack the toughest nut of a common foreign and security policy, because the U.S. President is supposedly withdrawing nuclear protection from his allies, is to misinterpret the current situation in several respects. There is no nuclear consensus in Europe. Instead, there is massive dissent about the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence. The British nuclear arsenal is in any case no longer available to the EU after Brexit. And the idea that it would be possible to seek protection under the French nuclear shield by co-funding the French nuclear armed forces also seems far-fetched. France’s nuclear weapons have a certain deterrent value by the mere fact of their existence, because they influence an enemy’s calculation of risk, but they are classic sanctuary weapons: first and foremost, they protect France. And Paris has never left any doubt that the decision to use French nuclear weapons will remain a purely national decision.

Shaping the nuclear reality

The United States remains the sole nuclear protective power for Germany. This protection is organized within NATO and nowhere else. A nuclear consensus is reflected in a strategy and military capabilities, and exists only in NATO – even there it has to be laboriously attained over and over again. Even in the alliance context, the American President alone decides on the use of nuclear weapons. But the United States – and only the United Sates – has the political will, the financial means and the military capabilities to underpin its position in the world order with credible promises of nuclear protection. These promises are also an important instrument of nuclear non-proliferation because they dampen the allies’ incentive to acquire their own nuclear weapons. That is why America will not give up this role.

Germany, for its part, should stick to nuclear sharing. Nowhere is institutionalized cooperation on nuclear issues closer than in NATO – from political declarations to military exercises. It is hard to imagine a greater degree of commonality between sovereign nation states. Through its role in nuclear sharing, Germany expresses its willingness to share nuclear burdens and risks. Not only Germany’s American but also its Eastern European allies should be able to expect this of Germany. Here it is important to stay on course – also and especially in view of the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty (TPNW) and Russian propaganda against nuclear sharing.

But even if Berlin manages to stay on course, recent developments show that Germany’s political class must find again its basic ability to talk about nuclear issues. After all, not only will doubts about America’s reliability as an ally of Europe continue for the foreseeable future, but the TPNW will soon become a permanent political and moral reality. The political and military leadership must therefore be in a position to defend nuclear deterrence against its critics, who will keep trying to discredit the concept. This defense also includes a clear statement to the effect that a policy based on deterrence to prevent war can be a moral policy. Those who make moral proclamations but at the same time create circumstances that could make conflicts more likely do not necessarily represent the morally superior alternative.

None of this precludes the desire for a world without nuclear weapons. But the focus should be on the conditions under which a nuclear-weapons-free world would be possible. It will then very quickly become clear that these conditions will not exist for the foreseeable future. Germany will therefore have to continue to live both in and with the nuclear reality. That is why, looking ahead, it will continue to be less a matter of overcoming this reality than of shaping it as part of a responsible and ethical security policy.

1 On this point, cf.: Deutsche Kommission Justitia et Pax (ed.) (2019): Outlawing Nuclear Weapons as the Start of Nuclear Disarmament. A position paper of the German Commission of Justice and Peace. Bonn. (accessed February 25, 2020). However, apart from a general criticism of the dilemmas of nuclear deterrence and an unspecific call for more trust among the international community, the paper fails to answer the question of how banning nuclear weapons leads to their abolition. (accessed February 25, 2020). However, apart from a general criticism of the dilemmas of nuclear deterrence and an unspecific call for more trust among the international community, the paper fails to answer the question of how banning nuclear weapons leads to their abolition.

2 The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. A Pastoral Letter on War and Peace by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, May 3, 1983. (accessed February 25, 2020). (accessed February 25, 2020).

3 Cf. Rühle, Michael (2011): “Die atomwaffenfreie Welt – zwischen Pragmatismus und Idealismus.” In: Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik 4 (3), pp. 263-272.

4 Cf. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Art. 1. Some prominent supporters of the Nuclear Ban Treaty called the U.S.’ allies that cooperate with Washington in the nuclear field „weasel states“ which should be splitted away from the block of rejection; cf. Williams, Heather (2018): “Tailored Assurance: Balancing Deterrence and Disarmament in Responding to NATO-Russia Tensions.” IFRI Proliferation Papers 59, Juli 2018, p. 19. (accessed February 25, 2020).

5 Cf. Barash, David P. (2008): “Nuclear deterrence is a myth, and a lethal one at that.” The Guardian, January 14, 2008. (accessed February 25, 2020).

6 Cf. Wilson, Ward (2013): Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. New York, p. 21 ff.

7 According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has operated a secret nuclear program since the mid-1980s. The program was suspended in 2003 on fears of an American invasion. Iran has repeatedly violated the terms of the nuclear deal reached in 2015 (from which the U.S. has now withdrawn). The country is also running a missile program that includes a potential nuclear delivery capability. Furthermore, Tehran is refusing to grant the IAEA access to several facilities, while enriching uranium to a level far beyond that required for civilian use. Cf. Albright, David et al. (2018): “Iran’s nuclear archive shows it originally planned to build five nuclear weapons by 2003.” ISIS/FDD Research Memo, November 20, 2018. (accessed February 25, 2020).

8 Under nuclear sharing arrangements, the non-nuclear alliance partner provides nuclear-capable aircraft and appropriately trained crews. The nuclear delivery systems are provided by the United States.


Michael Rühle

Michael Rühle, born 1959 in Stuttgart, is currently Head of Hybrid Challenges and Energy Security in the Emerging Security Challenges division in NATO’s International Staff. Previously he was Head of the Speechwriting Section and Deputy Head of the Policy Planning Unit in the office of the NATO Secretary General. The views expressed are his own.

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All articles in this issue

The End of the "Interlude" – Nuclear Deterrence in the Light of Roman Catholic Social Teaching
Heinz-Günther Stobbe
Waiting for Armageddon: Theological and Ethical Aspects Of Nuclear Deterrence
Drew Christiansen SJ
The Relevance of the Heidelberg Theses today
Ines-Jacqueline Werkner
Exposing Flaws in the Logic(s) of Nuclear Deterrence as an International Security Strategy – a Feminist Postcolonial Perspective
Madita Standke-Erdmann, Victoria Scheyer
We Are the Bomb: Opaque Financial Flows and Unwitting Involvement in Nuclear Armament
Robin Jaspert
Extended Nuclear Deterrence and Participation: Overcome Together, Don’t Go It Alone
Wolfgang Richter
Nuclear Arms Control, Disarmament and Nonproliferation Regimes in Deep Crisis
Tom Sauer
"No Way Out": Nuclear Weapons Remain An Important Factor in International Politics
Michael Rühle
Russian Nuclear Weapons: Reason or Feelings?
Konstantin Bogdanov
China’s Nuclear Strategy in a New Geopolitical Environment
Sven Bernhard Gareis


Markus Bentler Burkhard Bleul