Hedley Bull’s downside of nuclear deterrence: not so stable after all

Students of International Relations are probably familiar with the concept of nuclear deterrence so loved by especially neorealism. Simply put, the utter and complete destruction that today’s nuclear weapons are capable of, combined with second-strike capabilities, they say, create stability in the international system. Because attacking a nuclear power is too costly, no state will do so.

However, in his book ‘The Anarchical Society’, famous English School theorist Hedley Bull highlights an important deficit in the line of reasoning followed here by the neorealists. Bull paraphrases Spinoza discussing Hobbes’ “warre of all against all”. The problem, Spinoza says, is that man has to sleep sometime. He can be sick or distracted or deluded. In the absolute anarchy of Hobbes, where there is no authority, this is incredibly dangerous. Because it takes only one good hit to kill a person.

Note that it is the Hobbesian kind of international anarchy that neorealists hold for true.

But, says Bull citing Von Clausewitz, war between states is not as immediate as the act of killing a person. It takes several different blows for one state to ‘kill’ another, but most wars do not even end in the complete annihilation of one party. This means that the anarchy experienced by states is not so Hobbesian after all.

However, since states have acquired nuclear weapons, from a neorealist conception the Hobbesian anarchy seems to be more and more realised. Nuclear powers now have the ability to kill an entire state at once. How more states become nuclear powers, how closer we get to the kind of Hobbesian anarchy as described by Spinoza.

So, Bull shows in an aside from the main line in his book, strive for nuclear deterrence might only increase the state of anarchy for a neorealist.