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Schelling and Kahn on the Deterrence Power Essay

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Updated: Apr 13th, 2022

Both Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn agree that nuclear weapons serve as efficient deterrence tools. However, the two have different ideologies on just how the weapons play the deterrence role. Schelling argues that nuclear weapons do not have to pose a credible threat in order to be an effective deterrence tool, while Kahn argues that the threat posed by nuclear weapons have to be credible in order to serve the deterrence role effectively.

This paper argues that though Schelling’s theory was more valid during the cold war, it is no longer applicable in the contemporary world. In fact, Kahn’s theory seems more relevant considering the different dynamics that has surfaced in the 21st century threat environment.

Schelling proposed that the power of deterrence in the nuclear age is pegged not only on the equality or balance of the nuclear-possessing countries, but on the “stability of the balance” (Pennings 314). This proposition is further supported by his argument that parties in a conflict need to “coolly and rationally calculate their advantages according to consistent value systems” (Schelling 18).

Combined, these two propositions suggest that the mere possession of nuclear weapons is not deterrent enough; rather, opponents need to be in an equal position, where a first strike the aggressor party cannot diminish the defender’s ability to strike back.

Clearly, Schelling’s views on deterrence were based on uncertainty. More specifically, the theorist suggested that both sides had to be vulnerable for deterrence to work.

Notably, Schelling’s theory appeared plausible in 1972 when the US and USSR signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). According to the treaty, both parties could only have one ABM deployment area, located near each party’s capital city, or at a singled-out deployment area.

The treaty held until June 2002 when United States withdrew from it. If Schelling’s theory was indeed plausible, the withdrawal of the US from the treaty could have led to a disruption in international security and peace.

Kahn argued that countries use nuclear weapons for two kinds of deterrence; “Deterring an enemy’s first nuclear strike,” and, “using the threat of [our] own first strike to deter lesser aggression” (Levine and Levine 3). (Garnett 76) however notes that Kahn identified three deterrence modes of the nuclear weapon.

First, Kahn hypothesized that countries feared that a direct attack on a nuclear state would lead to a second-retaliatory attack. On this point, Kahn and Schelling share the same views.

Second, he posited that countries feared that provocation could trigger the probability of a credible first nuclear strike; and third, he hypothesized that countries could encourage the use of tit-for-tat deal brokering, which could deter the escalation of conflicts and provocations.

The latter supposition is similar to Schelling’s view that opponents would try other means of resolving conflict, by maintaining some sort of ‘respect’ for the other party, in order to avoid situations where nuclear weapons can be used.

Notably, Kahn’s ideologies have been criticized for providing more than deterrence principles. Specifically, some critics have accused him of offering directives on “how to fight a nuclear war, how to win it, and how to get away with it” (Kahn & Jones xi).

In his own defense, Kahn argues that his ideologies are meant to demonstrate how the world can avoid a nuclear war. Still, he does not dismiss the possibility of a nuclear war, and as such, he argues that his ideologies demonstrate how to limit such a war, and even how to bring it to an end (Kahn & Jones xii).

Of the two theories mentioned above, Schelling’s theory on deterrence won the argument during the cold war. One of the possible reasons why this happened was because the cold war was mainly a show of might by two distinct fronts. As such, Schelling’s supposition that the two fronts could calculate the advantages of engaging in nuclear war based on existing value systems was plausible during that time.

Putting the cold war into perspective

The cold war generally involved hostilities between the United States and her allies, and the Soviet Union and her allies. According to (Levine & Levine 13), the war provided a textbook example of Schelling’s theory of deterrence. Any attack, nuclear or otherwise, on the US or any of its allies would attract a similar retaliatory assault.

The reverse was also true; an attack on Soviet Union or any of its allies by the US would attract retaliation from the former. True to Schelling’s theory, the two parties had to choose between braving the use of nuclear weapons and suffering the devastating consequences, or settling their differences amicably using alternative, and less-devastating conflict resolution methods.

According to (Levine & Levine 13), the dichotomy of the choices was consistent with “all-or-nothing” proposition of the Schelling theory, since the US had made it clear that an attack on its homeland or on its European allies, would lead the American forces mounting a swift response.

The all-or-nothing proposition was however considered as inflexible and crude. This is evident in the MC-48 document authored by NATO, which stated categorically that NATO forces would not hold back the use of atomic weapons, especially in the event of aggression.

Analyzing the cold war against Schelling’s theory, one gets the impression that Schelling was right in predicting that a stable possession of nuclear weapons would reduce the likelihood of either party launching an attack. With both the US and the Soviet Union having no capability for nuclear defense, both were mutually vulnerable.

As (Bataoel 1) so aptly states, “…if both have the capability to attack, but both lack the ability to defend against an attack, then neither will attack the other because neither will want to bear the side effects of retaliation”. (Payne (a) 68-83) further emphasizes this thought by explaining that reciprocal assured vulnerability creates unwavering terror equilibrium.

Kahn’s theory would not be applicable in its entirety in the cold war. However, the first hypothesis stating that countries feared that a direct attack on a nuclear state would lead to a second-retaliatory attack, was relevant in the US and allies vs. Soviet Union and allies case.

To this end, Kahn and Schelling share a common assumption that adversaries would engage in cost-benefit calculations. If the perceived costs were greater than the perceived benefits, parties would hold back from initiating the first strike.

Why was Schelling’s argument more believable during the cold war?

According to (Payne (a) 21), Schelling prescribed a combination of “limited retaliatory capabilities” and “no civil defense” in his deterrence theory. Schelling’s proposition sounded scientific, easy to understand, and cheap to execute.

Kahn’s recommendations on the other hand were not only complex, but would have called for the government to create reliable systems through investing heavily in research and development (Payne (a) 21). As such, it is probable that Kahn’s recommendations to put up a missile defense were dismissed due to the related technical and cost difficulties, which would have made creating a reliable system hard.

Social approval could also have played a role in the acceptance of Schelling’s theory, and the disregard of Kahn’s theory. During the cold war, the American public perceived the possibility of using nuclear weapons in war as morally wrong. However, they were more accommodating to the notion that such weapons could deter countries from engaging in another war.

The main premise in Schelling’s deterrence theory is that a threat can still function as a dissuading tool even when its credibility is in question. Kahn’s argument on the other hand suggests that for a threat to act as a deterrent tool, it must be credible. This then leads to the question; just how is credibility judged in the face of nuclear weapons?

Well, according to (English 135), the credibility of a threat by the United States (or any other country) must be seen in the country’s ability to shield its populace and/or its allies from a nuclear attack, and in its ability to retaliate any attacks directed on its homeland or on its interests abroad.

The arms race that came after the cold war could be interpreted to mean that countries were cognizant of the fact that building their respective nuclear capacities was a necessary defensive and deterrent measure (Malhotra). Notably, the arms race supported Kahn’s theory more than it did Schelling’s theory.

Despite this, (Malhotra) notes that neither Schelling’s or Kahn’s theory can explain why Syria and Egypt still attacked Israel despite the latter having nuclear weapons, or why non-nuclear Argentina still captured British Falklands despite British possessing nuclear weapons. Other cold war examples include Eisenhower’s threat to the warring parties of the possible use of nuclear weapons. This threat did not deter either party.

Perhaps one of the most prominent deterrence occurred during the Berlin crisis in 1961, when though the US had an obligation to protect Berlin; President J.F. Kennedy decided to let the construction of the Berlin wall go ahead.

This was perhaps influenced by threats from the soviets, in which case the Americans sought to refrain from interfering with the construction of the Berlin wall. Later in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, both the US and USSR backed down from what was perceived as an imminent nuclear war.

These examples are proof that nuclear deterrence worked in the past. As Khan observes however, one cannot rule out the possibility of a first strike by an adversary, and should therefore be ready to protect the masses.

The contemporary world, Schelling’s, and Kahn’s deterrence ideologies

Unlike the cold war era where the US and the Soviet Union were the main adversaries, the contemporary world is much more complex. The situation is even worse with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to countries and cultures, which are guided by worldviews, or religious beliefs that are different from what guided the US-USSR relationship during the cold war.

If Schelling’s theory were to be applied in the contemporary world, neither the US nor the Soviet Union would build nuclear defenses. This stems from the fact that such an action would be interpreted to mean that one side is creating an advantage over the other. Such perceptions would on the other hand tip the power balance, something that could lead to preemptive attacks.

Moreover, the mutual assured destruction concept, which made the ideology by Schelling a winner in the Cold War, has been overtaken by events in the contemporary world.

For the mutual assured destruction to work, the two main parties in the cold war (the US and Soviet Union) had to have a relationship, where leaders from both sides could communicate and “comprehend their respective threats and thresholds for nuclear retaliation” (Payne (b)). Such a relationship would allow them to weigh the potential risks and consequences of conflict.

The modern context exposes several weak points in Schelling’s ideologies. Specifically, it is worth noting that not all nuclear states have sensible and shrewd leaders like the US or the Soviet Union had during the cold war. In fact, there is no guarantee that leaders of some of the nuclear states would be rational or cautious when faced with the possibility of a nuclear war.

This inevitably takes the guarantee off the deterrence role played by nuclear weapons. As (Payne (b)) so aptly puts it, the presence of rogue states in the nuclear equation has completely altered the situation in the contemporary threat environment.

The United State’s anti-terrorism fight, specifically targeting the Al-Qaeda is just one example of how complex contemporary wars have become. To start with, Al-Qaeda is non-state actor, which could (essentially) be pursuing nuclear armaments. As such, the US is fighting a transnational war, with a violent adversary, whose leaders are not willing to negotiate or consider the mutual destruction concept suggested by Schelling.

Moreover, the Al-Qaeda leaders are not as rational as state leaders would be. This has been proven by their utterances suggesting that their explicit objective is to rid the world of unbelievers regardless of the cost (Blanchard CRS-16).

Notably, extended deterrence concept rests on the assumption that adversaries are at the same nuclear superiority level. Nuclear parity, as is the case with the non-state actors compared to state actors like the US, leads to disputed credibility on the weaker nuclear party.

With some seemingly irrational leaders like Iran’s president Ahmadinejad being in power, Schelling’s deterrence theory is even more questionable in the contemporary society.

Ahmadinejad is on record for having stated that his aim is to be an instrument of destruction in order to “cut off the hands of the aggressor” (Bakhtavar). More specifically, the Iranian president is quoted to having stated that Israel should not be allowed to survive, and should thus be “wiped off the map” (Bakhtavar).

If Kahn’s recommendations were to be applied in the modern-day situation, countries would buy defenses and seek as much advantage as they can. After all, such actions would give their threats some credibility thus deterring any nuclear attacks. Should deterrence fail under Kahn’s recommendations, the nuclear states would have enough defense to protect their respective populations.

In the context of the threats posed by the Iranian president for example, Kahn’s recommendations are more relevant. This is because when sensible communication with such a leader fails, the best that Israel and her allies can do is build their defenses as a means of protecting their homeland just in case Iran decides to strike first. The states would also need to build their own capacity to strike back.

Security experts in the contemporary threat environment need to recognize that such states and non-state actors like Al-Qaeda, have rendered the mutual assured destruction concept proposed by Schelling invalid.

The proposal by (Kahn & Jones 8) that nuclear-armed nations would do well to worry about “insanity, irresponsibility, accident, and miscalculation” is relevant in the contemporary world especially considering that non-state actors can use nuclear weapons out of sheer irresponsibility or miscalculation.

Still, Kahn is of the opinion that even if a thermonuclear war was to occur, the magnitude of its effect would depend on the degree of pre-war measures taken by the targeted country. In addition, he argues that the use of non-military and military measures could contribute immensely to preserving “a reasonable semblance of a pre- [nuclear] war” society (Kahn & Jones 12).

In his writing, Kahn assumes that a first strike would be limited and not an “all-out-attack” meant to cause complete destruction. He supports this assumption by stating that the attacker would use the attack as an incentive to push for restrain from the adversary.

It is on such grounds that he suggests that the US should develop a “pre-attack mobilization base, ballistic missile defense… and a ‘not incredible first-strike capability” to act as a deterrent (Payne (a) 250).


Fundamentally, nuclear deterrence theory is based on how human beings make decisions. If nuclear deterrence is to work in the contemporary threat environment therefore, it may behoove security and defense policy analysts to learn from Kahn, rather than from Schelling.

This is especially the case since nuclear states have already developed missile defenses, which Schelling thought would destabilize the deterrence stability, but which Kahn thought was essential for credibility or protective purposes.

President Ronald Reagan’s statement, “We have arms because we have tensions, not the other way around” (Ford 54), best captures the relevance of Kahn’s ideology in the contemporary world. Kahn’s arguments are based on the assumption that countries do not have nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes only. Rather, he argues that some situations may one day prompt such countries to use the nuclear weapons.

This may seem like a far-fetched thought especially considering the catastrophic effect that a nuclear strike would cause, but the possibility as Kahn states still exist. As such, building defenses for purposes of protecting one’s homeland is one of the viable deterrent measures that nuclear states should adopt.

Between Schelling and Kahn, the former has been the most influential. However, this should not be taken to mean that Khan’s ideologies on deterrence are irrelevant. In fact, world leaders and security experts need to consider Kahn’s propositions more seriously now, seeing that there are new dynamics that may present new deterrence challenges.

Overall, Kahn’s suggestions have opened the doors for reassessing the current nuclear situation more soberly, and the eventual development of deterrence measures that are more practical in the 21st century. After all, not all states and non-state actors have the moral obligation or the rational thinking capabilities that the Soviet Union and the United States had during the cold war.

Works Cited

Bakhtavar, Slater. Why Iran wants War? Ahmadinejad & Co. Starring in Armageddon. May 2005. Web.

Bataoel, Vincent J. Improving Deterrence. Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Missouri State University, Dec. 2009. Web.

Blanchard, Christopher M. Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology. CRS Report for Congress, July 2009. Web.

English, John A. Marching Through Chaos: The Descent of Armies in Theory and Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996. Print.

Ford, Christopher. Nuclear Weapons Reconstitution and its Discontents: Challenges of “Weaponless Deterrence.” A Briefing Paper of the Hudson Institute, November 2010. Web.

Garnett, John. “Herman Kahn.” Makers of Nuclear Strategy. Eds. John Baylis, and John Garnett. London: Pinter Publishers, 1991. 70-85. Print.

Kahn, Herman, and Evan Jones. On thermonuclear War. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2007. Print.

Levine, David K, and Robert Levine. Deterrence in the Cold War and the War on Terror. Levine’s Working Paper Archive, Sept. 2005. Web.

Malhotra, Aditi. Re-examining the Nuclear Deterrence Theory. Peace & Conflict Monitor, Feb. 2010. Web.

Payne, Keith B (a). The Great American Gamble. Fairfax: National Institute Press, 2008. Print.

Payne, Keith B (b). “Nuclear Deterrence for a New Century.” The Journal of International Security Affairs. 10 (Spring 2006): n. pag. Web.

Pennings, Johannes M. Decision Making: An Organizational Behavior Approach. Lakewood, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1986. Print.

Schelling, Thomas C. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960. Print.

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