As deterrence evolved during the Cold War with the United States and Soviet Union aiming tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at each other, one can certainly understand the balance of terror that existed. The Cold War ended, and with it went any reason for deterrence. The threat of the Communists taking over the world (the dominant paradigm in which those of us growing up in those days were indoctrinated) was done, finished, kapput!
As It is ever so hard to give up that which we have held on to so strongly for so long, a concept on which politicians and military planners have staked their careers (and our lives) for nearly seven decades. And so deterrence lives on, and is given new meaning in an increasingly meaningless context. As with any long-held belief, we must find new reasons to hang on to it.
It is in this context that David Ochmanek, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Development, said (in 2009) that "the nation should continue to view nuclear deterrence as broadly capable of preventing both conventional and unconventional conflict." In response to reporters' questions at a session with the Defense Writers Group, he said that, "It's probably unwise to draw artificial distinctions between what nuclear weapons deter and don't deter... I think it's better to think about the deterrent qualities of our force in a more holistic way."
Hmmm... It just might be a bit of a stretch applying the concept of holism in the context of omnicidal weapons. Whatever people's perception of deterrence might have been previously, we live in a different world, a world in which any number of nuclear weapons mean nothing to some, and may or may not present a deterrent in many circumstances among nations. Might it be time to commit the concept of deterrence to the historical trash bin and pursue a different path - in which we develop relationships that involve more than ensuring our access to resources - in dealing with other nations. As for terrorists, the way to prevent a nuclear disaster is to ensure that nuclear materials don't get into their hands.
I have only scratched the surface of a discussion of deterrence, and I encourage people to engage in a much deeper discussion (and debate) of the subject. Too much is at stake here. In fact, the very survival of life as we know it on this small planet is at stake. As David Krieger notes in Ten Serious Flaws in Nuclear Deterrence Theory, deterrence is not foolproof, and "Its failure would be catastrophic." The other nine flaws in David's article are also pretty compelling indictments of deterrence theory.
Albert Einstein once said that "no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it." And THAT will be one of our greatest challenges - to create a new level of consciousness that will allow people to see nuclear abolition as an opportunity and not a liability. Only then will we be able to move beyond archaic concepts (like deterrence) that perpetuate our nuclear addiction and bring us closer, once again, to the precipice.