Volume 30, Issue 2, Summer  2016

US Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence:
Realist versus Utopian Thinking

This article examines how the long-standing conceptual divide in the study of international relations separating utopians and realists is reflected in their respective views of nuclear weapons and deterrence--and, ultimately, the modernization of US nuclear weapons. Utopians tend to see a predictable international system based on widely accepted cooperative norms and the rule of law as a feasible alternative to nuclear weapons and deterrence. Such a cooperative system would either preclude or minimize conflict in the international system and thereby enable the global elimination of nuclear weapons. US policies, they often say, should help promote the establishment of cooperative international norms against nuclear arms via continuing US movement away from nuclear weapons. Realists do not accept the possibility of nuclear disarmament in the absence of a fundamental change in the international order, concluding that, despite the obvious potential advantages of a cooperative international order and the rule of law, there is little or no evidence, past or present, to suggest that international cooperative norms and legal structures can or will supersede raison d’État as the basis for state behavior. Contemporary Russian military action in Central Europe confirms this conclusion. Consequently, realists tend to reject utopian recommendations regarding US nuclear deterrence policies and forces, instead favoring the sustainment of US nuclear capabilities for the deterrence of foes and the assurance of allies.

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