Nuclear deterrence

Definition & Introduction

Nuclear deterrence refers to a principle in international relations where the retaliatory potential and destructive force of nuclear weapons prevents nations from launching a nuclear attack. However, there are questions as to whether nuclear deterrence is sufficient, effective, just, or ethical.

Joseph Nye, Jr.’s 1986 book, Nuclear Ethics, identified ten operational criteria for avoiding nuclear conflict. In the Spring 2023 Issue of Carnegie Council’s Ethics & International Affairs journal, Nye revisits his book considering current world affairs and concludes that even though much has changed, “the basic usability paradox of nuclear deterrence remains the same” and so do its ethical dilemmas.

What are those ethical dilemmas? Explore essays and articles analyzing the role of nuclear deterrence in today’s geopolitical environment from Carnegie Council’s journal and network of experts below.

Just and Unjust Nuclear Deterrence

By Scott D. Sagan

Sagan proposes five principles to make U.S. deterrence policy more just and effective in the future, one such principle being to avoid use of nuclear weapons against any target that could be neutralized by conventional weapons.

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Should the United States lead a nuclear disarmament movement?

See how our network responded

The Ethics of Choosing Deterrence

By Sharon K. Weiner

Weiner questions three core assumptions for nuclear deterrence by exploring the illusion of agency, rational vs. irrational assessment, and narratives around necessity.

Read the article

More on nuclear deterrence and ethics

JUL 28, 2022 Podcast

The Doorstep: What is the Real Threat of Nuclear War? with Dr. Gary Samore

JAN 24, 2013 Podcast

Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons

What if everything we believe about nuclear weapons is wrong? "Reexamine the facts and you'll see that the arguments for nuclear weapons aren't powerful; they're preposterous. They are an unpersuasive collection of wishful thinking held together by nothing more than fear and rationalization."

MAY 11, 2001 Article

Should Traditional Nuclear Deterrence Be Abandoned?

Public panel in Washington, D.C., cosponsored with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and The Century Foundation.

Additional Resources

Nuclear Deterrence: A Guarantee or Threat to Strategic Stability?

“Nuclear deterrence can serve as a pillar of international security only in conjunction with negotiations and agreements on the limitation, reduction, and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.”


From Strategic Stability to Preventing Nuclear War

Sharon Weiner offers insights on the role of the nongovernmental sector in reducing nuclear threats and the need for public awareness of weapons programs and nonproliferation.


NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and forces

“Nuclear weapons are a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence, alongside conventional and missile defence forces.”


The Value and Limits of Nuclear Deterrence

"The devastating large-scale armed conflict between Russia and NATO-backed Ukraine requires that policymakers consider how best to address . . . challenges generated by great power competition.”