Nuclear Weapons | Analysis and New Insights

Nuclear Hotlines: Origins, Evolution, Applications

Steven E. Miller | October 2020


Hotlines can serve as essential firebreaks between accident, miscalculation, miscommunication, and the outbreak of nuclear war. They enable timely, direct, and confidential communication between adversaries so that states can avoid conflict and de-escalate crises.

In the nearly sixty years since the establishment of a nuclear hotline between Washington and Moscow, hotlines have proliferated to connect many states, at many levels of government, and for a variety of political-military purposes. Hotlines figure prominently in risk reduction strategies today. Yet for hotlines to serve their purposes in the 21st century, stakeholders need to better understand what hotlines do, their effectiveness, and how they can keep pace with modern information and communication technologies.

This paper by Dr. Steven E. Miller gives an overview of experiences to-date with nuclear hotlines. It reviews the history of the US-Russia hotline, describes the ways that hotlines can be used or misused, and charts how the hotline concept has evolved and propagated to help states manage international crises. The paper shows hotlines as important, if imperfect, tools for avoiding nuclear conflict.

Key Findings

  • The hotline concept has evolved to a variety of forms and settings, suggesting a broad utility.
  • Hotlines can enable nuclear-armed rivals to communicate directly and effectively at the highest levels in all circumstances, whether crisis or war, in order to minimize escalation, retain control of dangerous situations, and inoculate against potentially disastrous miscommunication or misunderstanding.
  • The impact of hotlines will depend on how they are used, whether to minimize risks and de-escalate crises or to promote coercive pressure and play diplomatic games.

This paper was commissioned by the Stanley Center, in partnership with the Institute for Security and Technology (IST) and the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, as a part of a workshop on “Nuclear Hotlines: Practice and Contemporary Considerations.”

For more, listen to a conversation between Dr. Miller and organizers in “The Fourth Leg,” a podcast by IST. Also available on Apple Podcasts.



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