CFR Report Calls for New Nuclear Deterrence Strategy

September 22, 2008
11:25 am (EST)

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"The rush to transform Cold War deterrence into a weapon against nuclear terrorism opens the door to a host of unintended yet dangerous consequences," warns a new Council Special Report, Deterring State Sponsorship of Nuclear Terrorism. "Wielded wisely," it argues, "a new twist on deterrence can make important contributions to strengthening nuclear security. But applied incautiously and indiscriminately, it could deeply undermine efforts to that same end."

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Analysts have long argued that the central pillar of Cold War strategy—deterring nuclear war by threat of overwhelming punishment—is largely irrelevant to efforts to prevent "one of the greatest threats facing the United States and the world," the use of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups. They contend that the threat of retaliation is not effective because terrorist bombs carried across borders or shipped in cargo containers lack the clear return addresses of warheads mounted on missiles, and terrorist groups, unlike states, do not present clear targets for retaliation.

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Yet many are now advocating that the United States revive deterrence by threatening to retaliate against states that are responsible for transfers of nuclear weapons or materials to terrorist groups. "Strategists are right to assert that the world must hold states accountable for how they handle their stockpiles," writes CFR Senior Fellow Michael A. Levi, "but they are largely wrong to translate that into policy by using variations on Cold War deterrence."

Efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism have aimed primarily to cut it off at the source by stopping terrorists from acquiring nuclear explosive materials. In many cases, this involves cooperation with states to secure their weapons and materials. Some have argued that threats to retaliate against states for negligent security practices would prompt them to step up security, but Levi says that such threats could in fact undermine long-standing cooperative efforts that aim to reduce the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack. He also emphasizes the limited leverage that such threats would deliver in most cases.

Levi distinguishes between the case of North Korea—where he argues that Cold War style deterrence applied to transfers of nuclear weapons and materials may be useful and explains how to go about it more effectively—and most other cases, including Russia and Pakistan, where he contends that it would most likely be counterproductive. The report’s recommendations include:

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  • Emphasize cooperation with Russia and Pakistan. "Threatening retaliation against countries like Russia and Pakistan in response to terrorist attacks stemming from lax security practices is unwise. It undercuts efforts to work cooperatively with those states to improve their nuclear security; dissuades those states from informing others if they discover that their nuclear weapons or materials are ever stolen, thus undermining any efforts to recover them; and makes it difficult to work with those states in the aftermath of an attack to prevent further detonations. At the same time, U.S. threats are likely to do little to actually encourage [Russia or Pakistan] to take nuclear terrorism more seriously."
  • Use deterrence carefully against North Korea. "North Korea... is unique among nuclear states in that there is a real prospect that, absent the possibility of retaliation, its leaders might deliberately transfer nuclear materials to a terrorist group. ...Strategists are thus correct to adapt Cold War deterrence to this case. But this task is not as simple as having the ability to attribute nuclear materials to North Korea and threatening to retaliate following any attack."
  • Hedge against ambiguous evidence. "The United States must sharpen its declaratory policy by stating that the U.S. president may still decide, based on compelling but imperfect evidence, to retaliate following a nuclear terrorist attack. At the same time, if the United States does retaliate following a terrorist attack, it must be firm (almost certainly by applying substantial force against military targets), but, most likely, restrained, including by avoiding the use of nuclear weapons and by stopping short of regime change."
  • Strengthen its perceived ability to attribute attacks. The United States "should aim to increase its perceived ability to attribute such attacks not only by investing more in the means to trace nuclear materials, but also by publicly demonstrating those capabilities on a regular basis by consistently and vigorously investigating nuclear leaks and publicizing the results. It should also develop shared procedures and understandings with North Korea’s neighbors... for deciding whether Pyongyang is the source of nuclear materials used in any attack."

For full text of the report, visit

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Michael A. Levi is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the books On Nuclear Terrorism (Harvard, 2007) and The Future of Arms Control (Brookings, 2005). He was previously fellow for science and technology at the Council, and before that, science and technology fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Levi holds a PhD in War Studies from the University of London (King’s College) and an MA in physics from Princeton University.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the author.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.


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