I want to check if the geopolitical system of my world is actually stable. Here's the background on the HAMMER protocol, the treaty that unwound Mutually Assured Destruction:

MAD gets tested, but doesn't happen:

All nations got nuclear ICBMs about 350 years ago. Mutually Assured Destruction reigned absolute for a while, but then about 70 years after nuclear armament, MAD was tested when a country called Vaaison launched a strike on the Gensuran Republic. Surprisingly the world was not destroyed. The countermeasures available were known to be insufficient, but they could hold off an attack for about fifteen minutes before the first missile got through the grid. In this critical time, the allies of Vaaison decided they would rather lose an ally than destroy the world, and immediately broadcast on all channels that they did not intend to fire, and disowned Vaaison. Satellite and radar tech was good enough to observe they were making good on their intent, and not firing. So Vaaison lost all its allies and was subsequently hit by retaliatory strikes from everyone. Because of the overwhelming retaliation, only a few Vaaison ICBMS got through to their target cities before Vaaison's defenses critically failed, and the whole country became a radioactive crater.

HAMMER replaces MAD

This incident lead to the adoption of the HAMMER protocol by international treaty. HAMMER got its name from the phrase "The nail that sticks up is hammered down" which is now often said as "The state that nukes first is HAMMER-ed down). Under the HAMMER protocol, initiating nuclear war immediately nullifies any alliances or mutual defense pacts your country has, leaving you at war against the world. Being the first to fire a nuke makes you the nail, and everybody else hammers. All other countries will work together to annihilate you. Getting caught trying to form an alliance that subverts HAMMER, or making demands with the threat of nuclear war also violate international treaty, but aren't automatic triggers of the full HAMMER protocol. The HAMMER protocol has teeth because as was shown by Vaaison, the destruction is not mutual. The destruction is assured for the instigator, but survivable by the others.

Conventional war returns:

HAMMER ended up being MAD turned upside-down, because the protocol is only activated by nukes, not conventional warfare. About 250 years ago, two nations got in a territorial skirmish over mineral resources, and what started as some fighter jets playing chicken and ground troops harassing each other escalated into war with conventional weapons. HAMMER actually let war happen without fear of MAD. Neither side believed the other would launch nukes first. How believable are threats that you'll launch a nuke over this coltan mine if it would mean total annihilation of you and your people?

The new equilibrium:

Ever since wars have been fought without nukes. They are always lurking in the silos, but nobody uses them. When a nation is losing badly, a leader with launch codes might try to posture and look crazy (or actually be crazy) enough to choose suicidal nuclear rage-quit over surrender, and that threat might lead to an armistice slightly more favorable than the loser could have otherwise negotiated, but other than that, the days of MAD are gone. More than one leader has threatened nuclear action only to be immediately assassinated by his or her own cabinet, who, faced with face-melting HAMMER annihilation, remembered that defending their values to the death had been just a campaign slogan.

Could nations go to war under this system without triggering nuclear cascade? Is HAMMER a stable geopolitical state like MAD? What would be the points of failure in the system? Is there a series of moves a key player could make to either seize nuclear dominance or send the world back to MAD?

Extra background on my specific world:

The geopolitics of the world are less like ours in the modern day, and more like feudal city-states. Like territory being taken and taken back in early Europe, people weren't horrified and screaming for all-out war if a part of their outer territory was taken, like Americans would be if one State got occupied. The politics between most nations is like that between early England and France. Always bickering and fighting over things and moving the borders of occupation and raiding each other, but not getting the whole continent swept up in a total war. The people of my world are loyal to the city-part of their city-state, but the other parts of their territory they have learned to be less attached to. Sometimes you own that lesser city or those oil fields, sometimes you don't. You'll take it back next year. And the people kinda like fighting and don't form larger alliances very well. So when nukes were developed and MAD started, tensions were very high because everyone wanted to go back to fighting, it was simpler than politics.

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    $\begingroup$ Earth has had plenty of wars since 1945, and the planet isn't a nuclear cinder. Thus, I fail to see the need for HAMMER to replace MAD. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn There doesn't need to be a need, something that makes alternate worlds feel more authentic and fleshed out are ideas like the above. It adds difference and flavour to the AU's political landscape. $\endgroup$
    – Aster
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 2:43
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn In the OP's world, all countries have nuclear weapons. How many countries with nuclear weapons have gone to war with each other since 1945? I can think of only one, and that only lasted two months, was contained to a very limited geographical area, and did in fact involve threats of nuclear retaliation. $\endgroup$
    – JBentley
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 3:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Ummdustry If those systems become commonplace, it would make sense to amend and extend the the treaties. Most of the WMDs you cited would release enough dust to cause a Nuclear Winter (no pun intended), which would have global consequences as well despite being non-nuclear. $\endgroup$
    – MauganRa
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ For the record, what you're describing is precisely the political universe described by Frank Herbert in Dune. Alll of the Major Houses have nukes but the Great Convention ensures no 'first strike'. You strike first, you get splatted. $\endgroup$
    – Richard
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 20:16

9 Answers 9


HAMMER only works if the other countries can get their nukes in first, and completely destroy that countries' nuclear capacity, including nuclear submarines.

MAD hinges on the fact that destroying a country does not make you survive. For example, Britain can still strike the capital city in retaliation long after the country has been reduced to ash.

Rogue Vaison submarines should still have been able to retaliate.

This does not mean HAMMER is inherently unstable: it is however no more or less stable than MAD is, because any opponent can still strike from beyond the grave.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding, Jonas! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find the Sandbox and Worldbuilding Meta useful. Have fun! $\endgroup$ Commented May 4, 2018 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ Very good point! Damn nuclear subs... $\endgroup$
    – Jared K
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ @JaredK There could be ways to make the nuclear subs easier to find. Maybe submarine detection outpaced submarine stealth. The oceans could be littered with sensors and/or anti-submarine drones. They could have advanced gravimetric sensors that can detect submarines by their mass (or rather density) compared to surrounding water. Or they could have efficient counter-measures that shoot down small missiles like those subs can carry, enormous land-based ICBM being the only ones that can reliably punch through it. $\endgroup$
    – Eth
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 10:52

You asked for problems:

  • Attribution of attacks: A goes to war against B. Suddenly, A's forward troops within the territory of B get nuked. There are no radar traces of missiles or aircraft, and data on nuclear and non-nuclear artillery shells is highly ambiguous. Who did it? Would A sacrifice a few of their own regiments to get B taken out by cat's paws?
  • Degrees of participation: A and B are at war. C to Z are concerned, with sympathies all across the spectrum. A goes nuclear. C to F hammer A, G to K make supporting noises, L to Z stay out and question the validity of the data. What now?
  • Related: Country A keeps a couple of ICBMs in readiness to participate in HAMMER, similar-sized country B lets the missiles deteriorate in their silos and spends the money on conventional weapons. Then B attacks A.
  • It is different this time: The last implementation of HAMMER was 250 years ago. Since then, the threat of HAMMER has worked. But in the last decades the international order has been polarized, with two distinct blocks in a Cold War. There are unconfirmed rumors that one block has nuclear warplans, and would not hammer one of their own, no matter what. If challenged, they call the question "insulting" without giving a clear yes or no.
  • Faith in countermeasures: As you describe it, there were ICBM countermeasures to degrade the initial salvo for 15 minutes. (Until the countermissiles ran out?) That was with the technology 250 years ago. What if somebody starts a serious R&D project to upgrade missile defenses? Especially if the state of the art in ICBM hasn't kept pace?
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed I am looking for problems, so I can patch them or make them part of the story. I really like your attribution of attacks idea. Information about who did what is critical. Attempts to muddy the waters would cause complications. Degrees of participation would not trigger further strikes, just some bad feelings afterwards. The idea is fewer nukes. Failing to participate in hammer would look lame, but not cause further nukes to fly. $\endgroup$
    – Jared K
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what you mean under the "related" item. I can see how it would be bad for A, but that's life. If they don't prepare for conventional war, they messed up. Does it destabilize hammer? Seems like it just leads to A getting all its holdings taken by B. If A goes nuclear, they get the hammer. $\endgroup$
    – Jared K
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ @JaredK You identified that in the "Related" scenario, B conquers A. Then, B lets A's nukes deteriorate as well. Repeat for 250 years. Eventually, there'll be few countries with usable nukes, many countries with a long history of successfully attacking countries with nukes, and basically no HAMMER left... then those nukes start looking tempting as a deterrent as long as you convince everybody you're willing to use them. $\endgroup$ Commented May 4, 2018 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ I'd extend the first to: Warfare will mostly likely gravitate towards spies -- if you know that your enemy is guaranteed complete annihilation if they launch nukes at you, then why not send missiles from a nuclear submarine in their borders, or fool their systems and try and provoke a nuclear missile to hit one of your lesser cities: "Evidence? You all saw that on radar, besides, you can't search for any now, it's just a smoking crater in the ground" It's likely that they would still try to automate HAMMER, just in case a stray nuke gets through. Thus that automation might be fooled. $\endgroup$
    – Aster
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 2:55
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    $\begingroup$ @KamilDrakari, that was my point, but you don't need centuries and everybody to make it happen. Two regional adversaries, roughly equal srtength. One puts a significant part of the defense budget into HAMMER, one doesn't. Guess who wins. So participating in HAMMER does not pay. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented May 5, 2018 at 4:33

I don't think it's game-theory stable, because a defecting nation can force the game-ending loss decision in the hands of cooperators:

I, leader of Foostanistan offer an ultimatum: I intend a limited nuclear strike on Barbaria to end our long-stalemated conventional war. If, in response, we detect an inbound HAMMERing, we will explode cobalt-laced bombs sufficient to destroy ALL life on Earth. You, HAMMER-abiding nations, have to decide if my limited nuclear strike is worth committing global suicide.

(This is not just a two-step MAD, since the HAMMERing players could simply decide to let this one slide, i.e., the "A"ssurance is missing.)

Documentary reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yfXgu37iyI

  • $\begingroup$ I guess that makes sense, but you've introduced a new variable: these cobalt-laced bombs. Those don't exist in my world yet. What are they? $\endgroup$
    – Jared K
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ @JaredK: They exist in our world. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 22:07

This might work if nuclear weapons are very expensive and somewhat limited in numbers (say like India vs Pakistan), since the size and amount of retaliation is going to be limited. But what happens if you have a large power like the Soviet Union or the United States which is geographically large and has a very large arsenal of its own?

The US and USSR had thousands of nuclear weapons in order to ensure "coverage" of every important target. Many targets were either hardened enough to require two or more warheads (like ICBM silos and airfields), or dispersed enough so that it would take many weapons to successfully destroy (major metropolitan areas). If a coalition of smaller nations like France and the UK were to choose to use this protocol against the United States, they would discover they have insufficient warheads to provide coverage against the United States, while just a few surviving US submarines would essentially erase France and the UK from the face of the Earth.

In effect, instead of raising the threshold of using nuclear weapons, you will have triggered a massive arms race in order to have enough weapons to provide coverage of any conceivable nation. Given the wild disparity between the professionalism of various nations, you also have opened the floodgates to widespread trafficking of nuclear weapons, especially by corrupt third world nations (think of the DPRK selling nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan and Iran. Now imagine if they were capable of selling nukes to Somali warlords....).

With all these weapons of unknown provenance freely available, you would also drastically lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. A single device detonated in the heart of a city could deliver a massive blow to that nation, but is this a premeditated attack by an enemy, an act of terrorism sponsored by a third party or even a rogue device that had been somehow acquired by a disgruntled individual? Sorting that out and determining who to strike back against will be exceedingly difficult, especially in a world where every possible suspect is armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.

So you have created a situation where chaos and uncertainty is the order of the day, and the use of nuclear weapons is ironically much more possible than the stable equilibrium of MAD.

  • $\begingroup$ I cant find the source, but I read somewhere that if you nuked fertile lands to destroy food production you could wipe out more than 90% of the worlds populace with "Just" 100 nukes. For a MAD strategy thats more than enough as it makes all current nations cease to exist. A country with 10 fully capable ICBM's would at the very least be able to cause a worldwide catastrophe that will take several countries with it and cause a war over remaining food afterwards. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ "Coverage" suggests that if you have 10 ICBM's in hardened silos I need a minimum of 20 warheads to destroy them in place. This presumes 100% reliability of all aspects (launch, targeting and detonation). As well, you number seems a bit low, unless we are talking about cobalt seeded "dirty" bombs. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucides shooting down a nuke is way harder than shooting it. So with the ability to shoot down nukes you would have the ability to accurately shoot them at any target in the world. Although now that I mention it it's hypocritical to assume the nukes hit while there is a wildly accurate anti-nuke system in place $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented May 7, 2018 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ Actually the "two nuke" rule is without effective ABM coverage. Given the possible CEP errors (i.e. how close the warhead is when it strikes the target area), two is the absolute minimum. If you want to account for defective trigger mechanisms and so on, now you need at least three, and probably more. If there is a functioning ABM system in place, you need to saturate the battlespace with many more warheads to ensure that each target can be serviced. Since you don't know which warheads get through, ABMs induce a huge uncertainty in your calculations. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ isn't the answer against ABM and CEP errors to "just" launch MRV and MIRV nuclear missiles and saturate the area with multiple warheads? And if the ABM is capable of intercepting a nuke with high success rates, then the nukes would similarily have high success rates as they benefit from similar technology. That said, 15 minutes of intercepting all nukes before one got through... That is some ABM tech! $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 7:15

Wanted this as a comment but might fit better here:

You ask where it would fall apart. What about tactical nukes? If you allow them attacking conventionally is suicide once you've gathered units anywhere. If you don't allow them its nigh impossible if it was country A, B or even a sneaky strike from C.

Then there's O.M.'s question of data and its interpretation. Say country A nukes B but due to the trajectory/closeness and timing (possibly even some anti-satellite strikes) its unclear who fired. Or it IS clear but the country says "yeah well, it was B anyway" to his populace, the world and the majority of its military. Then country B and some of his allies speak up and broadcast it was A... Who are they going to believe? If allies of A HAMMER country B under their falsehoods the rest of the world (who are right) would now need to HAMMER all states who HAMMERED B... All out nuclear war ensues.

The only solution I see is an automated response. A system, maintained by all the countries in the world with checks and balances to prevent messing with the system. It uses tons of equipment to monitor the world... And enough nukes to destroy the world.

The world then fills in scores to keep the system updated about the status-quo. Should country A try to get the system to HAMMER B through slight of hand, the system will know relations are bad between them and simply nuke both countries. These relations are public, so everyone knows who might get nuked. This also limits how gladly people ally themselves with countries that threaten with nuky things.

As an extra precaution, if the system thinks it might fail for whatever reason, it'll nuke countries that have bad relations in case those countries deliberately try to let it deteriorate so they can nuke each other. So countries would have to try and keep good relations and do things like not create large conventional armies that might be a precursor to nuclear war.

Edit: this automated entity could be the only one with access to nuclear rods of God. These would be virtually impossible to stop once fired and offer the threat you earned. Even if the nuclear payload deteriorates, the Rod itself would still have an impact similar to a nuke.


Under the HAMMER protocol, initiating nuclear war immediately nullifies any alliances or mutual defense pacts your country has, leaving you at war against the world.

In other words... is just declarative! Mutual defense pacts, alliances, and other agreements are only as binding on their members as they deem useful. It's been historically common for nations to decide to honor them or not depending on what's currently more convenient to them. That's part of what sovereignty is all about.

Nullifying such agreements gets a "get out of jail free" card to allies-in-name only in multilateral agreements. But if an alliance with the offender still serve their purposes, they can still stand by it. Countries can and do come to support one another in war with or without a formal alliance.

This protocol could work in a kinda-feudal world with near-perfect equality, where all significant nations are of roughly equal size and power, where alliances don't persist, and where they don't congregate into larger super-alliances.

As for whether that's a direction a feudal world typically goes, EVE Online can be seen as a social experiment (animated map). To put it short, the world entered a metastable equilibrium with typically 2-3 superpowers surrounded by a less-political "third world".
One could even argue that there was a bit of a hammer protocol, "nukes" being cheating at risk of everyone else's resentment. That actually happened (search for "band of developers" if interested) and the alliance was powerful enough to plough through it until it fell apart for other reasons.

In a world of super-alliances, a superpower alliance will use nukes when it suits them and there's nothing anyone will do about it. Their enemy alliance is already their enemy, so the hammer protocol has no effect. Their own alliance won't disband over it, because they're held together by a common enemy. Lesser parties won't do anything out of fear.

While the HAMMER protocol could work under some circumstances, with the circumstances required it's very likely that not having it would work out to the same outcome.


Consider the situation in Europe in the 1960s.

The Eastern Bloc (Soviet Union and satellites) held unquestionable conventional supremacy over the European NATO nations. The Soviets could have formed up a skirmish line any time they wanted, and headed West, and there would have been ABSOLUTELY NOTHING the West could have done to stop it.

Except to break the skirmish line with tactical nuclear weapons. While replying to the attack with strategic nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union proper, at a time when there was no defense whatsoever against such attacks.

This is why the West laughed long and hard at the Soviet Union's "no first use" policy, and refused to sign on.

HAMMER would be a blanket invitation for the guy with the biggest conventional army to throw one hell of a party, complete with fireworks.


1) A special forces raid takes over a couple of silos and fires the missiles. Real cheap way to destroy your enemy.

2) Boomers. Half a dozen boomers hiding out. Before using your nukes you announce that boomers #1 and #2 will fire all their missiles at the first nation to launch against them. #3 and #4 against the second to fire and #5 and #6 fire at the third.


It would depend upon how their interdependencies played out. Country A may be vital to country C for some reason. So Country A would first seek permission of all Hammerites to attack country B. If country G refused then country A would get country C to threaten country G etc. Treaties aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Politicians tend to be opportunists and under Hammer would package themselves as a victim in any case. Country B would end up getting it either way.


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