No section in my shoeboxes filled with 4×6 cards is fatter than the one devoted to nuclear deterrence. Lots of smart people have offered conflicting assertions on this topic. Everybody’s right, so far, since nuclear weapons haven’t been used in warfare since 1945. Conversely, as Eric Clapton has sagely noted, “Nobody’s right till somebody’s wrong.” Slowhand’s song, ‘It’s in the Way That You Use It,’ belongs in the deterrence canon.

In contrast, nuclear weapons have not proven to be that helpful in deterring conventional warfare, including two instances of limited wars between states possessing nuclear weapons. Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann argue that nuclear weapons are even less useful for compellence.

After assessing 200 cases, using methodology that will help with their academic advancement but that baffles me, they conclude in the Winter 2012 issue of International Organization that,

Compellent threats are more likely to be effective under two conditions: first, if a challenger can credibly threaten to seize the item in dispute; and second, if enacting the threat would entail few costs to the challenger. Nuclear weapons, however, meet neither of these conditions. They are neither useful tools of conquest nor low-cost tools of punishment.

Another reason for failures in deterrence and compellence is that decision makers are often in the dark about their adversaries. These lacunae are usually filled in with policy preferences. Here’s a sampler of some of my favorite quotes on deterrence, including a few I’ve no doubt used in previous posts:

“In its most general form, deterrence is simply the persuasion of one’s opponent that the costs and/or risks of a given course of action he might take outweigh its benefits.” — Alexander George and Richard Smoke (1974)

“When dealing with the absolute weapon, arguments based on relative advantage lose their point.” – William T.R. Fox (1946)

“Deterrence after all depends on a subjective feeling which we are trying to create in the opponent’s mind, a feeling compounded of respect and fear.” — Bernard Brodie (1959)

“The very purpose of threat and counter-threat is to prevent the test of actual performance from taking place.” — Hans Morganthau (1964)

“’Assured destruction’ fails to indicate what is to be destroyed; but then ‘assured genocide’ would reveal the truth too starkly.” — Fred Charles Iklé (1973)

“If [deterrence] were really stable… it would cease to deter. If the probability of nuclear weapons going off were zero, they would not deter anybody.” – Kenneth Boulding (1986)

“The [first] Persian Gulf war showed that if you are going to take on the United States, you had better have a nuclear weapon.” — K. Sundarji (1993)

“Our leadership will evaporate if we turn deterrence into a hollow incantation.” — Alexander Haig (1990)

“Deterrence is easier to contrive than most strategists have believed.” — Kenneth Waltz (1990)