n 2021, U.S. president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin said that nuclear war should never be fought and, if fought, could never be won. Many then assumed the statement reflected twin cautionary deterrent policies from both countries, with the chances of future nuclear weapons use significantly receding.
It is indeed true that the first statement—nuclear weapons should never be used—is the object of U.S. and NATO deterrent policy.
However, the second idea, that if nuclear weapons are ever used no one is going to come out the victor, misses the key point about credible deterrence: retaliating against an enemy that uses nuclear weapons against the United States is only credible if we mean it. Otherwise, it’s simply a bluff. As highlighted by at least four Nuclear Posture Reviews since 1994, the United States believes deterrence absolutely relies on the U.S. retaliatory use of nuclear weapons, precisely what the United States “will do in response” to aggression.
This is where confusion may now exist. For some global zero advocates, U.S. deterrent doctrine even including a retaliatory nuclear strike by the United States is often described as “warfighting” and needs to be stricken from U.S. security doctrine.
But if a retaliatory threat is a sheer bluff, then deterrence will have no effect. And furthermore, if it is assumed that any retaliatory use of nuclear weapons no matter how limited will escalate to an all-out massive exchange of nuclear weapons, then the U.S. threat of retaliation amounts to little more than a non-credible threat of mutual suicide. And without a credible deterrent, strategic stability is undermined, and war becomes more likely.
Thus, U.S. deterrent strategy and policy need to be constantly “re-established,” even if U.S. retaliatory strategy remains ambiguous as to exactly under what conditions the United States might use nuclear force. In short, if a retaliatory strike is dismissed as immoral “warfighting,” and thus outside U.S. strategy, what then is the point of the retaliatory nuclear strike threat to begin with?