How to Explain Nuclear Deterrence to Your Neighbor


Though the average American retains barely if any memory of the robust public dialogue on nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the three-decade “pause from history” that made this amnesia possible has come to an end. At last week’s McAleese & Associates and Credit Suisse 2017 Defense Programs conference, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva asserted his belief that there is an emerging need for a “national dialogue” on nuclear deterrence, given the need to recapitalize the majority of America’s nuclear delivery systems over the coming decade. The importance of nuclear weapons to U.S. national security is self-evident to us, analysts who support government customers in the nuclear weapons enterprise. Accordingly, we were elated by Gen. Selva’s comments. We’re realistic, though, in appreciating the challenges the Defense Department would face in establishing such a dialogue, simply because there is so much about U.S. nuclear weapons that remains secret. But the bigger problem is how national security elites tend to communicate. Too often, defense matters are buried in prose made impenetrable by jargon and acronyms. No less frustrating is the inability to distill complex military concepts and theory into terms both the average American and uniformed servicemember can understand and accordingly support. So how can a national dialogue on nuclear deterrence proceed?

To begin with, a successful dialogue should reconnect Americans with the substantive reasons we have a military — including but not limited to our nuclear forces — shaped and operated the way ours is. It’s one thing to tell Americans that a strong military keeps them safe and prosperous; it’s another thing entirely to explain why this is so. It should be explained that exportation of American products abroad is feasible only because the U.S. military ensures the free movement of all nations’ goods and services around the globe (including digital communications via undersea cables and satellites) and that without the active defense of this consensual trading system American businesses — both small and large — would suffer degraded or lost access to many of their major overseas markets. The American people need to understand that there are actors in the world today, both state and non-state, that actively seek to reestablish “sphere of influence” mercantilism, and that the economic well-being of American workers rests heavily on resisting this trend.

The public should further understand that forward-deployed U.S. military forces are there for the benefit of the American people as much as that of our regional allies. By keeping these forces forward, the U.S. military deters the risk of major war, and greatly increases the likelihood that if deterrence failed, any such conflict would unfold far from our shores. The American people should be made to understand that the perception and reality of American military strength buttresses global stability, shielding Americans from the financial and physical hardships (if not devastation) of major war; and that reducing this strength only entices revisionist powers to take greater and more dangerous risks. Above all else, Americans should understand that all U.S. conventional capability is backstopped by nuclear weapons, which ensures that no adversary can threaten us with nuclear attack without fear of incurring a catastrophic rejoinder. In the absence of effective nuclear forces, Americans should know that coercion at the hands of other nuclear powers would be certain and the United States would be unable to retain the pre-eminent status in the world we’ve enjoyed for seven decades. Nuclear weapons, despite their destructive power, ultimately are integral to preserve the peace.

A successful national dialogue should not be coy about real threats that exist and demand a diverse spectrum of nuclear forces. Too often, government officials try to explain the need for spending on nuclear forces while dancing around naming the bad guys driving the demand for nuclear forces. While dealing with political sensitivities is important, Americans should be informed that there is indeed a threat against which nuclear weapons offer the only protection. Anti-nuclear groups regularly assert the opposite claim, that nuclear weapons do nothing against “pressing” threats like terrorism, and so accordingly are not worth funding. This spurious argument should be factually countered in a manner the average American can understand, such as by identifying plausible scenarios not far removed from world events that make the case for why robust nuclear capabilities are essential. Moreover, these arguments should explain what nuclear weapons can do (contribute to deterring great power conventional war and outright deter nuclear strikes on the homeland) and cannot do (prevent attacks like 9/11 and San Bernardino); making clear that while nuclear weapons are not a salve to all problems, they remain necessary. Specific examples, such as Vladimir Putin’s threats against the Western world, fictional Chinese videos raining destruction down on unnamed Western forces, and North Korean brinksmanship on any given day, will go a long way. Those that worry about the military’s involvement in politics can rest assured that there is no need to do anything other than quote foreign leaders and rehash their recent behaviors to make the need for nuclear weapons crystal clear.

Finally, whatever success a national dialogue may have in the above respects, it will all be for naught if this dialogue resorts to obsequious jargon. To quote an admiral we greatly admire, “The military has never met an adjective it did not like.” Oh how true this is. Per Defense Department messaging, the military does not destroy things (for the record an easily understandable concept), but rather “delivers precision kinetic effects.” This language makes as much sense to the average American as Farsi. A successful national dialogue must be intelligible to non-military audiences. This means using straightforward language, losing the acronyms, and using simple analogies.

An illustrative case in this last thrust is a comparison between homeownership, insurance, and nuclear weapons. Consider the following example: If you think of our nation to be your home, nuclear weapons can be thought of as both alike and unlike homeowner’s insurance. Nuclear weapons are like homeowner’s insurance in that maintaining them is necessary to protect yourself and your family from the worst calamities that could befall your property. Nuclear weapons are, however, unlike homeowner’s insurance in that while buying homeowner’s insurance does not reduce the chance of a calamity affecting your house (only the magnitude of the effect), keeping robust nuclear weapons actually reduces the chance of having to employ them. It is as if a flood knew that your house was covered by flood insurance and so elected not to flow your way. Analogies such as this are powerful because they resonate with ideas the average American can readily understand and relate to. Meaningful national dialogue should strive to make common sense points like these in an easy-to-understand manner on many issues, including explaining how the expenses of nuclear modernization pale in comparison to their value to national defense (not to mention the scale of the national economy).

Gen. Selva’s call for a national dialogue on nuclear deterrence is to be commended. That said, efforts by defense leadership to stimulate such a dialogue will require significant forethought. Striving for public support in the realm of abstract ideas against opponents who may not understand, let alone be aware of all the variables — or who may not care about what they do not know or understand — is not an objective to be taken lightly. The outcome of such a dialogue will dramatically affect U.S. national security, and as such, defense leaders cannot take for granted that the messages and methods they’ve historically used for this purpose will continue to be up to the job.


Jonathan Altman and Jonathan Solomon are Analysts with Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia. The views expressed herein are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis Inc., and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency.


Photo credit: 576th Test Flight Squadron