Is Deterrence Morally and Legally Permissible and Is It a Form of State Terrorism?

  • Jason PoettckerEmail author


This chapter examines the recent nuclear threats made between US President Donald Trump and leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un in 2017 and compares them with traditional strategies of deterrence that emerged in World War II and the Cold War and argues that these threats are a form of nuclear deterrence which involve threats to kill innocent civilians with nuclear weapons. First, I define deterrence and argue that the threats of Trump and Kim fit this definition. Next, I present moral arguments for deterrence and my objections to those arguments. Then, I present arguments against deterrence and answer potential objections to those arguments. Next, I examine the legality of the Trump/Kim form of deterrence. Finally, I define terrorism and point out the similarities between the Trump/Kim form of deterrence and terrorist tactics. I conclude that this kind of deterrence is not morally permissible, potentially illegal, and can be seen as a form of state terrorism.


Nuclear Deterrence Nuclear Threats State Terrorism 


  1. Black-Branch JL (2017) Nuclear Terrorism by States and Non-state Actors: Global Responses to Threats to Military and Human Security in International Law. 22:2 Journal of Conflict & Security Law 201–248CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Burroughs J (2016) Looking Back: The 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice. July/August Arms Control TodayGoogle Scholar
  3. Criminal Code of Canada, R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46Google Scholar
  4. Cohen Z, Browne R, Gaouette N, Lee T (2017) New missile test shows North Korea capable of hitting all of US mainland, 30 November 2017, CNN,
  5. Demerly T (2017) U.S. Tests Minuteman Missile Amid North Korean Tension and Proposed ICBM Upgrade, The Aviationist, 4 August 2017,
  6. Finnis J (1987) Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism. Clarendon Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  7. Fisher U (2007) Deterrence, Terrorism, and American Values, III:1 Homeland Security AffairsGoogle Scholar
  8. Grimal F (2016) Jus ad Bellum: Nuclear Weapons and the Inherent Right of Self-Defence. In: Black-Branch JL, Fleck D (eds) Nuclear Non-Proliferation in International Law - Volume II, T.M.C. Asser Press, The HagueGoogle Scholar
  9. Haltiwanger (2017) What Kind Of Bombs Does North Korea Have? A Guide To Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Weapons, 22 September 2017, Newsweek,
  10. Hiroshima Report (2018) Evaluation of Achievement in Nuclear Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Security in 2017, Japan, Hiroshima Prefecture. Center for the Promotion of Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (CPDNP) (ed) The Japan Institute of International AffairsGoogle Scholar
  11. Jones FL (2013) “The High Priest of Deterrence”: Sir Michael Quinlan, Nuclear Weapons, and the Just War Tradition. Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Volume 16, Number 3, Summer 2013, pp. 14–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Medina V (2015) Terrorism Unjustified. Rowman & Littlefield, MDGoogle Scholar
  13. Meyer P, Sauer T (2018) The Nuclear Ban Treaty: A Sign of Global Impatience. Survival, 60:2, 61–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Nielsen K (1987) Commentary: Doing the Morally Unthinkable. In: Fox MA, Groarke L (eds) Nuclear War Philosophical Perspectives. Peter Lang Publishing, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  15. Nye JS Jr (1986) Nuclear Ethics. The Free Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  16. Ogilvie-White T (2011) Part One: The logic and morality of nuclear deterrence. Adelphi Series, 51:421–423, 63–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Quinlan M (2009) Thinking About Nuclear Weapons. Principles, Problems, Prospects. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  18. Schelling TC (1982) Thinking about Nuclear Terrorism. International Security, Volume 6, Number 4, 61CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Stürchler N (2007) The Threat of Force in International Law. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  20. Trindade AAC (2010) International Law for Humankind: Towards a new jus gentium. The Hague Academy of International Law, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, LeidenGoogle Scholar
  21. Wacks R (2014) Philosophy of Law A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Wilner AS (2011) Deterring the Undeterrable: Coercion, Denial, and Delegitimization in Counterterrorism. 34:1 Journal of Strategic Studies 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© T.M.C. Asser press and the authors 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of LawUniversity of ManitobaWinnipegCanada

Personalised recommendations