An Ethical Nuclear Posture for the 21st Century?

| November 26, 2013
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In July, at the first session of a colloquium co-sponsored by the Naval War College and Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and held in Newport, questions about the ethics of nuclear proliferation and deterrence were discussed—with some of the arguments subsequently appearing in Ethics & International Affairs. One of the conclusions drawn at the end of that conversation was that barring an existential crisis to the security of the United States, there was no circumstances—even up to and including the use of a small nuclear weapon by another state—in which American policy-makers could either on ethical or strategic grounds countenance the use of nuclear weapons in return.  At the same time, however, the continued existence of these weapons (and their possession by the United States) had helped to create strategic stability, certainly through the years of the Cold War, and avoid another massive global conflagration like World War I or World War II. But even here, senior leaders like the famed “Gang of Four” (Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn) have warned that “reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”

The second iteration of this colloquium, held in New York, was led by Dr. Thomas Nichols, and moved to consider the next question: after the end of the cold war, what is the appropriate role (and size) of a U.S. nuclear force that would make both strategic and ethical sense? Although arms control treaties have brought the numbers down, the U.S. still possesses some 4000 nuclear weapons, yet the force is still structured as if it must deal with a Soviet threat circa 1982. The problem, as Nichols pointed out, is that even in a post-cold war environment, we assume that all nuclear problems are alike and that the strategies that worked to deter the USSR are just as applicable to today’s problems.

One thing that has changed is that today the United States and the larger Western alliance is free to take a “no first use” pledge. Given the awesome and tremendous stockpile of conventional capabilities which the Euro-Atlantic community now possesses, there is no threat that cannot be met without needing to resort to nuclear weapons first. Indeed, one cannot envision under what circumstances (other than a massive, catastrophic nuclear first-strike) where Western policy-makers would be prepared to look at options, no matter how finely tuned, for randomly killing “only” a few million people and poisoning an entire region. This is one cold war-era policy that can be discarded.

Another is the question of linkage: the United States is loath to make further reductions in its nuclear weapons stockpile unless the Russian Federation commits to a reciprocal cut. In essence, it holds the size of the American nuclear arsenal hostage to Russia’s decision-making, but as Nichols pointed out, we may have an interest in not pushing the Russians for further cuts. The Russian defense industry continues to keep employed personnel that we would prefer not see migrate and sell their services to other states who seek nuclear capabilities, and Russia’s nuclear force is better secured under military protection as an active-duty force than to have Russian nuclear components disassembled and under inadequate guard and supervision.

The “Gang of Four” holds out for complete nuclear disarmament. If that is not possible, then what is a more ethical and reasonable standard than simply to continue with the cold war-era status quo? Nichols argues for two strategies—one for near-peer competitors like Russia or China and another for the “small states” that may seek a limited nuclear capability.

The Cold War strategies called for massive overkill—seeking the guaranteed destruction of half a country’s population and a good portion of its infrastructure and industry. It assumed, however, that regimes might be willing to write off a smaller portion of their territory, populace and GDP. In reality, however, under what conceivable circumstances would a rising China or a revanchist Russia be willing to risk a possible nuclear exchange, even a limited one? What makes anyone conclude that these countries—or any of the other major nuclear powers—would be able to absorb the losses and aftereffects of even a highly-circumscribed exchange? Nichols argues that when seen from this perspective, a posture of minimum deterrence makes the most sense: the United States needs to keep enough weapons and delivery vehicles in a reasonable degree of safety from a sudden decapitating strike that would threaten the ability of any other government to be able to exercise control over its territory—a stance that might even be accommodated by numbering weapons in the hundreds, rather than in the thousands or tens of thousands.

For the “states of concern” (like North Korea), Nichols argues that it is time to stop making nuclear threats. Politicians and pundits have not thought through what a nuclear response actually entails—the deaths of large numbers of people and spreading radiation over a large areas. No U.S. policy-maker is going to spread nuclear death on a large scale simply for revenge—and it is strategically unwise to make threats you do not plan to carry out, as well as to threaten a response that many would find to be immoral. The United States already possesses a credible deterrent threat in its ability to mount massive conventional assaults that lead to regime change. Indeed, given changes in military technology, there is now a much greater ability to hold parties responsible directly to account, without having to necessarily inflict harm on large numbers of people—but with sufficient force to demonstrate that attacks would be met with decisive action that would lead to the destruction of the offending regime. Given that deterrence is not a technocratic matter but a psychological condition between leaders, it seems that what matters most is that there be a clear and effective response, rather than on matching the weapons system type for type.

Can such a strategic approach be adopted by the current or future U.S. administrations? That remains unclear, since the cold war paradigm for nuclear strategy continues to exert a compelling hold on policy-makers. Whether they will be willing to take a perceived political risk in shifting from the comfort of past tradition to a new standard of minimal nuclear deterrence coupled with overwhelming conventional force needs further examination.

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Category: Blog, The Ethics of War and Peace

Comments (2)

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  1. Given that the ‘win’ of nuclear war is no one can live in the area for generations there is NO moral justification for such a thing. What seems to be the case today is a comfortable familiarity with nuclear, so the understanding of the consequences have faded. Syria (not mentioned in the article) is a case in point. The world needs to re-educated on the effects of this kind of catastrophe. The entire conversation has shifted as we have and are continuing to use nuclear for energy needs. What was true in the 50s may no longer hold water.

  2. Nick Gvosdev says:

    Syria was discussed in the precursor post to this one–which was linked in the first paragraph … at

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