Deterrence During Disarmament: Deep Nuclear Reductions and International Security

Although Russia, the United States, and American allies have been loath to downsize their nuclear arsenals, deep reductions would not undermine a nation’s security since arsenal size has little bearing on effectiveness of deterrence.
Published March 14, 2011 by International Institute for Strategic Studies
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After two decades of stagnation, Russia and the United States have pledged their support for reductions in nuclear warheads. But the vision of mutual disarmament remains plagued by doubts on all sides. Russia, the United States, and American allies struggle as ever with the notion that downsizing would be a step into the unknown, and hold on to the belief that, when it comes to deterrence, size matters. Until now, the reasons behind this anxiety—and whether it is justified—have not been properly explored. Based on a series of interviews with opinion formers in Russia and the United States, this Adelphi paper by Carnegie's James Acton examines long-held concerns about the effectiveness of deterrence (including extended deterrence) at low numbers, the possible incentives to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis, the potential for rearmament, and risks surrounding nuclear multipolarity.

Deep reductions in nuclear arsenals are much less problematic than commonly perceived, as the experience of the USSR and the United States in the early Cold War, and China, France, and the United Kingdom over a longer period demonstrates. Taking into account these examples, together with potential stumbling blocks and crisis scenarios, this book contends that arsenal size has little bearing on many of the security challenges usually associated with low numbers, and accordingly, that making deep cuts would not undermine international security.

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About the Nuclear Policy Program

The Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program is an internationally acclaimed source of expertise and policy thinking on nuclear industry, nonproliferation, security, and disarmament. Its multinational staff stays at the forefront of nuclear policy issues in the United States, Russia, China, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.


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