The nuclear taboo

US economist Thomas Schelling believes that the reason behind the non-use of atomic weapons lies in their inability to be “contained, restrained, confined, or limited”
The nuclear taboo
25-Jan-17
2025

The US, along with eight other nuclear-armed states, remains unable to reduce its reliance on threats to use nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, its continued dependence on ‘nuclear blackmail’ or fuzzy concepts like ‘deterrence’ has made the possession of nuclear weapons more suitable.

Next month, the world will observe the 71st anniversary of the atomic attack on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, history’s first and only two acts of nuclear warfare. Since August 1945, nuclear weapons have never been used against any country.

This has led some observers to believe that nuclear weapons will never be used again. However, a deep analysis of global nuclear politics does not warrant high levels of optimism. This tradition of not using nuclear weapons is not strong enough to stay intact in times of war.

What explains the continued non-use of nuclear weapons also remains a moot point among security experts. Thomas Schelling, a US economist and professor of nuclear strategy, believes that the reason behind the non-use of atomic weapons lies in their inability to be “contained, restrained, confined, or limited.”

He further argues that nuclear weapons are different because of “a jointly recognized expectation that they may not be used in spite of declarations of readiness to use them, even in spite of tactical advantages in their use.”

Realist scholars believe power politics and purely material factors to be more crucial determinants. However, deterrence advocates would argue that the non-use of nuclear weapons could be explained by the near-universal fear of mutually assured nuclear destruction. It still does not explain why these weapons have not been used in the absence of a credible threat of nuclear retaliation. On the other hand, constructivist scholars tend to argue for the existence of an international norm against the use of nuclear warheads. In their view, the tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons is socially constructed and defines itself through its inter-subjective thrust, strengthening over time.

Other reasons why nuclear weapons have not been used include tactical constraints such as the dearth of good targets and limited military utility. In 1949, the Harmon committee — led by Lt-Gen Hubert Harmon of the US Air Force — concluded that a nuclear attack on Russia could kill millions of Russians and destroy 40 percent of the Soviet industrial capability but a complete capitulation of Soviet troops would remain impossible.

Similarly, in October 1951, the US conducted an exercise involving dummy nuclear weapons against North Korea. The data showed the ineffectiveness of the weapons because of the difficulties involved in the identification of enemy troops in a timely manner. However, the US President Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had not only continued to debate the feasibility of limited use of nuclear weapons but also spent a considerable political capital to establish a public opinion in favour of the use of atomic weapons. In 1954, the US had reportedly considered using atomic weapons against North Vietnam. Luckily, military strategists had then declared the nuclear option to be militarily and technically infeasible due to the absence of suitable targets and the risks involving the outbreak of an all-out nuclear war.

In the post-cold war period, Russia has increased its reliance on nuclear weapons to overcome its limitations of conventional military capability. Russian leaders have repeatedly signalled that the nuclear option can be used under some extreme circumstances. The military doctrine unveiled in 1993 made it clear that “Russia could use nuclear weapons not only in response to a nuclear attack but also in the case of a conventional attack against nuclear weapons or the early-warning system which could be classified as a nuclear attack.”

Even though Russia does not have any stated ‘no-first-use’ policy, it is still willing to adopt it on a multilateral basis.

China is believed to be the only nuclear state that has historically upheld the no-first-use policy. Chinese leaders have proposed the conclusion of a treaty to ban the use of nuclear weapons but China’s growing nuclear capabilities have the potential to upset both strategic and conventional balance in the region.

Furthermore, there is little historical evidence to suggest that the Chinese no-first-use policy has been driven by reputational concerns because the goals of nuclear disarmament have never been central to China’s nuclear strategy.

The nuclear policies of Pakistan, India, and Israel have also done little to strengthen the tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons. In Pakistan, a major cause of concern for disarmament activists remains the high level of domestic support for the use of nuclear weapons.

Most people are unaware of the threats posed by the existence of nuclear weapons and, thus, approve their use in the throes of a nationalist plague. The situation is not very different in India as well. Since 2014, the Modi government has been revising India’s nuclear doctrine and no longer has a declaratory no-first-use policy.

Since it became a nuclear state in 1966, Israel has made indirect threats of nuclear use. Israel has far superior conventional military but still continues to build nuclear weapons. According to the most recent estimates, Israel has above 200 nuclear weapons of all sizes. It has historically maintained a policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. In 2006, Ehud Olmert, the then-prime minister of Israel, had acknowledged the existence of a nuclear programme but later he had to retract his statement under domestic pressure.

This discussion suggests that security policies of nuclear states still favour long-term reliance on nuclear deterrence and the threats emerging from the possible use of nuclear weapons cannot be ignored. The human race will continue to face the greater risk of extinction as long as nuclear weapons are not totally eliminated.

 

The writer can be reached at rizwanasghar5@unm.edu


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