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deterrence theory, proxy wars, racism

The Privilege of Deterrence

It’s time to look closer at the privilege, white supremacy, and racism behind deterrence theory.

Words: Mackenzie Knight
Pictures: Dmitry Schemelev

Calling all deterrence naysayers! Have you been patronized by a man trying to explain deterrence or mutually assured destruction to you? Have you been on the receiving end of a “well, actually” in the form of “nuclear weapons keep us safe”? Well, I present to you the latest installment in these exhausting exchanges: “the Vietnam War is better than World War III.”

Yes, this is a real sentence that was said to me. Let’s set the scene. It’s my first semester of grad school. My “Intro to Weapons of Mass Destruction” professor is discussing deterrence while I, naturally, am getting into a debate in the Zoom chat with another student. He comes at me with “deterrence works.” I throw it back with, “no, it just shifts the battlefield to innocent countries via proxy war, like in Vietnam.” He hits me with, “yeah, but the Vietnam War is better than World War III.”

Reader, I gasp. My keyboard clacking comes to an abrupt halt. I cannot believe what I have just read. The existence of such a worldview, from an expert no less, has been a nagging concern in the back of my mind ever since.

Humans in far away, less developed/privileged lands are deemed worth sacrificing in order to maintain a facade of security for those of us with nukes.

Fast forward one year, and my good friend Molly Hurley organizes a small, informal group of women in the nuke space to take to TikTok to educate younger generations and the general public on nuclear issues. I was honored to be added to the group and excited to start my advocacy journey, but my starry-eyed vision of leading a mass social media movement for nuclear abolition was quickly dulled by my newest boogeyman: the comment sections on our videos. That same ghoul of problematic opinions I faced in the Zoom chat is now back to haunt me in droves. Here are a few of the worst comments we have received (I apologize in advance for what you, dear reader, are about to see).

In response to an International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) video about the myth of nuclear weapons providing safety, one user had this to say:

Another user unabashedly admitted to preferring proxy wars in “minor” countries over “important” ones:

On another ICAN video discussing the claim that nuclear weapons prevent World War III, a user argued that “a small war in the Middle East” would be less destructive than war between “big powers:”

I regrettably stumbled upon these next two gems in the comment section of one of my own videos on why deterrence/mutually assured destruction is privileged and problematic:

My friend Emma Akiko deserves a self-care day after receiving this comment on one of her videos about how nuclear weapons have not prevented World War III:

Actually, make that a self-care week:

What these commenters are attempting to say from their moral low ground is that nuclear weapons promote peace by preventing another world war, and proxy wars are an unfortunate but necessary price to pay. When confronted with the argument that proxy wars prove nuclear weapons have not promoted world peace, these people bumble various versions of: yeah, but those lives don’t count or yeah, but those lives aren’t worth as much as mine.

Those in the nuclear field talk a lot about the merits of deterrence and debate about whether or not it works, but it’s time they address the problematic foundation of deterrence theory. It’s convenient to espouse the unfounded claim that no nuclear weapons equal World War III, which equals more people dead than a measly proxy war. Less dead is obviously better than more dead. Hooray, nuclear weapons. Such is the train of thought that has upheld deterrence as the end all be all of US nuclear policy. However, this argument has always hidden behind a thin veil of moral superiority that, when lifted, reveals white supremacy and racism. It attempts to dehumanize by reducing lives to numbers on a balance sheet. Humans in far away, less developed/privileged lands are deemed worth sacrificing in order to maintain a facade of security for those of us with nukes. Nuclear superpowers like the United States and Russia get to laud the “success” of deterrence while innocent lives in Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan (to name just a few) are lost in the proxy wars they started.

All snark aside, it’s understandable that, when faced with the choice between World War III or a proxy war, some might come to the seemingly logical conclusion that the option with less death is the way to go. What people like these commenters fail to realize, however, is that they are trapped in a false dichotomy, and there’s a third option: no death. It doesn’t have to be “us” or “them.” It could be none of us.

To achieve this will require total nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapons are dangerous not just because of their destructive power but because they give nuclear weapon states the power to decide who gets to live and die. It’s time to throw deterrence and nukes in the trash heap of history before the next proxy war begins — or before a nuclear attack starts a civilization-ending dumpster fire.

Mackenzie Knight

Mackenzie Knight is an MA candidate in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a Graduate Research Assistant at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. You can find her on TikTok here.

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