The Nuclear Straitjacket: American Extended Nuclear Deterrence and Nonproliferation

Benoit Pelopidas

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


In this chapter, I discuss the possibility of change in nuclear weapons and alliance policies. I investigate the understanding of history that frames possible and desirable change in US nuclear weapons policy and submit it to historical critique.
Does the historical record suggest that extended nuclear deterrence has been a relevant tool for nuclear nonproliferation? To answer this question, I identify a common and problematic framing of it, the nuclear straitjacket, and analyze its policy implications before focusing on two case studies: the United Kingdom and France.
The nuclear straitjacket frames the requirements of national security as a binary choice between nuclear security guarantees from an ally and the quest for an independent nuclear deterrent. I call it the nuclear straitjacket because it limits itself to two ultimate security guarantors, both of which are nuclear.
The British and the French nuclear decision making before 1957-1958, a time when the pledge of nuclear retaliation at the heart of extended deterrence was more credible than in any other period, illustrates the ways in which the nuclear straitjacket mischaracterizes the set of policy options available to decision-making elites. In this study, I show that nuclear-weapons-related choices are not only dependent on a subjective measurement of the credibility of a pledge based on nuclear weapons capabilities, which is why this critique should not be misinterpreted as a case for the inevitability of proliferation. On the contrary, the number of non-nuclear-weapons states whose security strategies do not depend on a pledge of extended nuclear deterrence underlines the widespread existence of a non-nuclear understanding of security that is incompatible with the nuclear straitjacket.
This has important implications for historians, analysts, and policymakers: The belief in the nuclear straitjacket as a principle working throughout nuclear history creates an overestimation of the role of extended deterrence, of the need to make the pledge credible, and of the successes of past policies based on it. More broadly, neglecting a political approach of nuclear choices—which gives room for the possibility of radical peaceful change over time and accepts the possibility of a non-nuclear understanding of security—could lead to misguided policies. I show how a belief in the nuclear straitjacket unduly opposes renunciation of nuclear weapons on the part of the protector, the reduction of its arsenal beyond a given size, and consequently the feasibility and desirability of a world without nuclear weapons. Most important, it induces policymakers to continue a nonproliferation policy based on a partial understanding of nuclear history and discourages policy innovation outside the proliferation paradigm.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Future of Extended Deterrence
Subtitle of host publicationNATO and beyond
EditorsStefanie vonHlatky, Andreas Wenger
Place of PublicationWashington D.C.
PublisherGeorgetown University Press
Number of pages33
ISBN (Print)9781626162648
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2015

Structured keywords

  • PolicyBristolSecurityConflictAndJustice


  • extended deterrence
  • nonproliferation
  • nuclear weapons policy
  • Nuclear Disarmament
  • French nuclear history
  • British nuclear history


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