Nuclear Deterrence, Arms Control, and Multipolarity: An Argument for Incremental Policy Change

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 1996


Changes in the international environment and potential deep cuts in nuclear arsenals have raised issues regarding central tenets of nuclear deterrence theory. This article examines three of the primary issues in the current debates: the [dis]utility of the theory and the weaponry: arms control and renewed calls for minimum deterrence; and multipolarity and nuclear weapons. It argues that, while continued deemphasis of nuclear weapons and deterrence theory seems desirable, in fact it is time to allow recent modifications to solidify before enacting more far-reaching changes.

Nuclear deterrence theory and the policies it engenders are currently under tremendous strain. Recent arms control agreements herald an era of significantly lower (although by no means minimal) force levels. Old notions of threat are less clear, and new notions have yet to reveal themselves. The utility of nuclear weapons is questioned as never before. Clearly deterrence theory and concomitant strategic policy issues are ripe for re-examination. This article attempts to contribute to the ongoing debate.

As with all writers on this issue, I begin with certain assumptions from which I make assertions and draw conclusions. For example, notwithstanding certain prognosticators heralding a new world of cooperation, I remain wary of the as yet anarchic world environment. I assume a largely anarchic world. From this I argue (or assert) that nuclear weapons have been a stabilizing factor among great powers, in contrast to the chaotic great power relations during the first half of the twentieth century. Disagreement over these and other issues remains. Given the open interpretation of surrounding issues and the high stakes of the ongoing debate, it seems useful to make our arguments as forcefully as possible, thereby allowing easier criticism. In this way, the strongest positions can be determined. Consequently, this article is both analytical and advocative.

At the same time, the article is necessarily limited in scope. It addresses the security end of the nuclear deterrence debate from a decidedly military viewpoint. It cannot address morality issues. Social and economic factors are entirely beyond its range. Even within the military realm it can address only the broadest elements of nuclear strategy. Nonetheless, if read on this level, it makes a forceful argument for prudence and incrementalchange in the area of nuclear deterrence, thus maintaining stability. It provides grist for the mill of debate, which in turn leads us to a more thoughtful approach to these dangerous weapons.

Toward this end, three areas of importance in the debate are reviewed: the [dis]utility of the theory and weapons; evolving notions of arms control; and, multipolarity and nuclear weapons. Issues of proliferation that have become an analytical area unto themselves are ignored.


Tkacik, Michael Patrick. "Nuclear Deterrence, Arms Control, and Multipolarity: An Argument for Incremental Policy Change." Armed Forces & Society (0095327X) 22, no. 3 (Spring96 1996): 357-377.



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