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An Asymmetric Model of Nuclear Deterrence
Analysis and Forecasting. IMEMO Journal

An Asymmetric Model of Nuclear Deterrence

DOI: 10.20542/afij-2021-3-13-29
© Alexey V. FENENKO, 2021
Received 01.07.2021.
Accepted 14.07.2021.
Alexey V. FENENKO (, ORCID: 0000-0003-0493-2596,
School of World Politics, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Leninskiye Gory, 1-52, Moscow, 119991, Russian Federation.
The article explores the concept of an asymmetric model of nuclear deterrence. The issue of asymmetric nuclear relations is one of the most productive in the theory of nuclear deterrence. By asymmetry we mean disparity in military power between the subjects of deterrence, when the weaker subject deters the stronger one. All of the official nuclear states have tried the components of such a policy, France and China exercising its fuller capacity.
In the bipolar period, nuclear deterrence was relatively simple. The two superpowers sought to deter the opponent from taking certain actions by means of a nuclear threat. However, in the early XXI century, traditional deterrence is replaced by a compellence (coercive) policy aimed at forcing the opponent to commit certain actions that he would not commit otherwise. How the potential future revisionists can use coercion policy is an issue still beyond the scope of our rationalization. The author believes that they could indeed pursue such policy and could create a concept of asymmetric deterrence in three variants: 1) the use of nuclear weapons as a “guarantor” of their security in the course of expansion; 2) modernization of the “limited nuclear war” concept; 3) non-use of nuclear weapons alongside with the abandonment of the nuclear deterrence concept (modeled on the chemical weapons during World War II).
However, the theory of asymmetric nuclear deterrence is still being developed at present, and therefore has been applied mainly at the political level. We can identify two issues emerging within the theory, both of which are of practical significance: 1) the weaker agent can deter the stronger adversary despite the military disparity between them; 2) whether the stronger agent is able to ward from the weaker counterpart.
Looking back in history, we can observe, at least, four scenarios of the emergence of revisionist powers:
 – the French scenario: when a state aiming at supremacy fails to achieve it through a number of local conflicts and instead attempts to gain global leadership;
 – the German scenario: when a super state with great military power feels offended and struggles to assert its place in the sun, or rather in the world;
 – the Italian scenario: when a regional state, which does not boast great military power, starts a territorial expansion;
 – the Japanese scenario: when a previously small and, by default “insignificant” state, builds up its great military power and threatens the world with its revisionist policy.
It is not possible yet to predict the mechanism of nuclear deterrence in today’s world or foresee where we shall expect the emergence of revisionist states. However, what we do learn from history is that such revisionist powers will be eager to promote their ambitions at any cost. It is quite difficult to imagine now what will happen if a revisionist state does not believe in another country’s readiness to deliver a nuclear strike. Similarly, what will happen if such a revisionist regime uses a containment strategy for both its defense and territorial expansion?

For citation:

Fenenko A. An Asymmetric Model of Nuclear Deterrence. Analysis & Forecasting. Journal of IMEMO, 2021, no 3, pp. 13-29.

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