We Tolerate the Risk of Nuclear War Between States But Not Nuclear Terrorism

Fear of a nuclear terrorist attack can deter us as much as fear of all-out nuclear war. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons )

Fear of a nuclear terrorist attack can deter us as much as fear of all-out nuclear war. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons )

Did you ever notice how panicky the notion of nuclear terrorism makes us? Meanwhile, most of us consider nuclear deterrence a risk well worth taking for the sake of national security. In fact, the damage that nuclear war between states causes dwarfs that of a nuclear attack with one small bomb (or even only a “dirty” bomb). Perhaps it’s just because we assume terrorists act on bad faith — supposedly little concern about the loss of the lives of themselves and their people — while, most of the time anyway, states can be depended on to act in good faith because they are entrusted with the lives of their citizens.

This is the subject of an article in the Spring 2016 Strategic Studies Quarterly titled Revealed Preference and the Minimum Requirements of Nuclear Deterrence. From the abstract (I’m only a few pages into the article) by Dallas Boyd:

US national security policy features a striking inconsistency in its leaders’ tolerance for the risk of nuclear terrorism and nuclear war respectively. Policies concerning the former suggest an overwhelming aversion to the risk of a nuclear attack. By contrast, US offensive nuclear capabilities … imply at least some tolerance for the risk of nuclear retaliation. Yet this retaliation could be many times more severe than an act of nuclear terrorism—an event that American leaders suggest is intolerable.

What’s more …

A further inconsistency is that the conventional criteria for a successful first strike only account for an enemy’s constituted nuclear weapons. This differs from the standard that governs US counterterrorism policy, which holds that the mere possession of fissile material [by a terrorist group] constitutes a nuclear capability.

Meanwhile, Boyd writes, “A more consistent nuclear doctrine would consider” — admit, that is — “that any state capable of engineering a single nuclear detonation on American soil may be able to deter the United States. If internalized uniformly, this low damage tolerance could” undermine deterrence, which is based on tolerance for the risk of attack by multiple nuclear weapons.

After I finish reading the article, I hope to explore the whys for this inconsistency.

This piece was reprinted from Foreign Policy In Focus by RINF Alternative News with permission.