Delegitimizing Nuclear Weapons

The United States should take the lead in making the use of nuclear weapons unacceptable under any but the most extenuating circumstances.

The most urgent national security issue facing the United States is the possibility that a nuclear weapon might be used against this nation as an instrument of war or terror. If we are to avoid such a catastrophe and its unprecedented environmental, economic, and social effects, this threat must be addressed vigorously and soon.

Facing up to the threat will require more than tracking down terrorists or warning rogue states that they will be held accountable for their actions. It will require delegitimizing nuclear weapons as usable instruments of warfare and relegating them to a deterrent role or, in certain cases, to weapons of last resort. This policy change will be difficult to adopt, because the nation’s leaders as well as the general public have lost sight of the devastating power of nuclear weapons and tend to disregard the political and moral taboos surrounding their use.

A nuclear weapon has not been detonated in war since 1945. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is ancient history for anyone under 50. There have been less than a handful of nuclear tests during the past decade, and the vast majority of nuclear tests between 1963, when the Limited Test Ban Treaty came into effect, and 1996 were conducted underground, literally and figuratively burying the “shock and awe” effects of a nuclear explosion. In the meantime, presidents and politicians have come to view nuclear weapons as a seamless extension of the nation’s military capabilities and the threat of their potential use as an acceptable part of its political rhetoric.

This nuclear amnesia is critically dangerous for several reasons. First, nuclear weapons are enormously more destructive than conventional explosives. During 10 months of air raids on Britain in 1940–1941, the German Luftwaffe dropped bombs with the equivalent of 18.8 kilotons and killed more than 43,000 people. At Hiroshima, one bomb with an estimated yield of 15 kilotons killed 70,000 in one day, with the toll reaching 140,000 by the end of 1945 because of subsequent deaths from injuries and radiation exposure.

A dangerous amnesia about the devastating nature of nuclear weapons has set in among the nation’s leaders and citizens.

Second, despite efforts by the Clinton and Bush administrations to equate the dangers of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons by lumping them together as weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons are the only ones that could devastate the United States, irreparably altering the lives its citizens. Chemical weapons (CWs) tend to be localized in their effects and difficult to deliver over large areas. They can be detected by sensors and their effects mitigated by protective measures. Biological weapons (BWs) are a more serious threat, but they can be tricky to produce, difficult to disseminate, and unpredictable in their effects. Against unprepared civilians, BWs could be devastating, although the severity of an attack could be attenuated by vaccinations, masks, antidotes, protective clothing, quarantines, and small-scale evacuations. On the other hand, there might be no discernable sign of the launch of a BW attack, in which case those responsible might be impossible to identify.

The devastating efforts of nuclear weapons as compared with CWs and BWs are indicated in a comparative lethality risk model developed by the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The release of 300 kilograms of sarin nerve gas would create a .22-square-kilometer lethal area and cause 60 to 200 deaths. The release of 30 kilograms of anthrax spores would create a 10-square-kilometer lethal area and cause 30,000 to 100,000 deaths. But the explosion of a hydrogen bomb with a 1-megaton yield would create a 190-square-kilometer lethal area and cause 570,000 to 1,900,000 deaths.

Third, the public is generally unaware of the large numbers of nuclear weapons around the world. About 27,000 are believed to exist in eight known and one suspected (North Korea) countries. Most of these weapons (26,000) are in U.S. or Russian arsenals. Weapons that are deployed and ready to be used on short notice generally are secure from theft or diversion. But security problems, particularly in Russia, continue to exist with those weapons that are kept in storage or reserve.

The 2002 U.S.-Russian Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT, also referred to as the Moscow Treaty) will reduce the long-range strategic nuclear weapons of the two parties to 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads each by 2012. The treaty, however, does not apply to strategic nuclear weapons in storage or reserve, or to any tactical nuclear weapons, which together constitute the overwhelming majority of warheads in the arsenals. The treaty also does not affect the 2,500 to 3,000 warheads that the United States and Russia each still maintain ready to be launched on short notice. The other nuclear powers generally keep their systems in a lower state of readiness, often without the warheads mated to missiles or aircraft.

Finally, unlike the CWs and BWs, there are no effective defenses against a nuclear weapon delivered by long-range missile or one clandestinely emplaced in a target country. Thus, although there is a high level of confidence by the command authorities of the nuclear weapon states in the reliability of offensive warheads going off over the target if launched by missiles, there is no comparable confidence in the reliability of defenses that are deployed or being developed against ballistic or cruise missile attack. Strategic missile defenses currently being developed are unproven against a determined small-scale attack, unworkable against a large-scale attack, and irrelevant to the threat from rogue states or terrorists, whose delivery systems are unknown but not likely to be long-range ballistic missiles.

Fourth, although CWs and BWs are banned by international treaty, nuclear weapons are not. For reasons perhaps related to the adversarial, deterrent relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, nuclear weapons have been more leniently treated than CWs and BWs. Specifically, the possession, use, and transfer of CWs and BWs are outlawed by international agreement. Notwithstanding the fact that some countries have acquired and used these weapons, the international community has established an explicit norm against their use, and the relevant CW and BW agreements call for an international response to violations of this norm to be orchestrated through the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

Although there is no international convention forbidding the use of nuclear weapons in warfare, implicit political and moral constraints against their use seem to be recognized by most states. (These would, of course, not restrain non-state actors.). In addition, in the absence of a universal ban, some large geographic areas of the world have declared nuclear weapons off limits. These so-called nuclear weapon–free zones (NWFZs) include Latin America, Africa, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Antarctica.

The major international treaty regarding nuclear weapons— the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—bans only the proliferation, not the use, of nuclear weapons beyond the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia, who also happened to be the five permanent members (P-5) of the UN Security Council. However, the treaty grants the non-nuclear weapon states the right to the “peaceful” use of nuclear technology. This essentially permits any state to develop the capability to produce the fuel required for a nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, this fuel could also be used to build a nuclear weapon. This is the basis for the current concern about the Iranian program to enrich uranium.

To counterbalance the continued possession of nuclear weapons by the P-5 nations, the NPT calls for these states to work toward ending the arms race and for all NPT members to seek general and complete disarmament. No timetable and no political or security criteria for disarmament were established and, not surprisingly, no nuclear nation has committed to a date for its own denuclearization (although the debate has some resonance in the United Kingdom). But the nuclear disarmament goal is nonetheless an explicit one and is frequently singled out by the non-nuclear weapon states as an “unequivocal obligation” that the nuclear powers have yet to fulfill.

In addition, there is no explicit ban on the further development or modernization of nuclear weapons by the nuclear weapon states. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would have essentially halted the development of more sophisticated weapons, was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1999, and its entry into force any time soon, if ever, looks highly improbable.

A final reason for why nuclear amnesia is dangerous is because, with the exception of China, the nuclear weapon states continue to maintain the right of first use of nuclear weapons against any kind of attack, as well as the right of preventive or preemptive attack. As President Jacques Chirac of France stated in January 2006, “The leaders of states who would use terrorist means against us, as well as those who would consider using in one way or another weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would lay themselves open to a firm and adapted response on our part. This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind.”

All nuclear first-use policies are in sharp conflict with the findings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In 1996, the ICJ concluded that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” The ICJ, however, could not agree on whether nuclear weapons could be used “in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.” First-use policies also contravene the so-called negative security assurances, a solemn political commitment by the P-5 not to carry out a nuclear attack against non-nuclear weapon states that are NPT members.

Concern about the Bush administration’s current nuclear weapon use policies has evoked a strong reaction from some members of Congress. In a December 2005 letter to President Bush, 16 lawmakers objected to the March 15, 2005, draft of the Pentagon’s Doctrine for Nuclear Operations that would allow combat commanders to request presidential approval for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons under various conditions. “We believe this effort to broaden the range of scenarios in which nuclear weapons might be contemplated is unwise and provocative,” the letter said.

By supporting a variety of justifications for nuclear use, the administration is sending a clear message that nuclear weapons are indispensable, legitimate war-fighting weapons required by the world’s most powerful country to ensure its security. Moreover, the current policy also indicates that the United States, despite its rhetorical support for the NPT and its efforts to convince non-nuclear weapon states to renounce nuclear weapons and fissile material production, does not intend to eliminate these weapons from its own arsenal and, indeed, plans to modernize and retain the arsenal indefinitely.

Delegitimizing nuclear weapons

There are no indications that the Bush administration, in its three remaining years in office, will reexamine its ill-considered and self-endangering policy of threatening to use nuclear weapons in practically every contingency or abandoning the push to develop new specialized nuclear weapons to support this policy. If the United States is to avoid the unmitigated disaster surrounding any nuclear weapons use, it will be up to the next administration to remove nuclear weapons from the quiver of threat responses and war-fighting scenarios and begin the process of delegitimizing nuclear weapons.

To this end, three actions can be taken. The next administration should declare that the United States does not consider nuclear weapons to be a legitimate weapon of war and will not use them unless they are used by an adversary. This statement does not require congressional approval or presage costly military acquisitions. It might also be coordinated with the other nuclear powers. As the head of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, Linton Brooks, noted recently, “We can change our declaratory policy in a day.”

The current U.S. nuclear use policy is unwise in that it lacks any strategic rationale. The threat during the Cold War to use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear aggression, however contradictory and self-deterring such a policy might have been, was considered helpful in reassuring the Western alliance that some military response was available to counter the conventional military quantitative advantages of the Warsaw Pact. Today, however, the United States enjoys the greatest conventional superiority in history over any potential enemy or combination of enemies and, with the exception of nuclear weapons, cannot be put at risk by any adversary.

In 1993, three respected members of the U.S. national security establishment, McGeorge Bundy, William J. Crowe, and Sidney Drell, wrote: “There is no vital interest of the U.S., except the deterrence of nuclear attack, that cannot be met by prudent conventional readiness. There is no visible case where the U.S. could be forced to choose between defeat and the first use of nuclear weapons.” Nothing has occurred since this statement was written to make nuclear weapons more critical to maintaining stability and security. To the contrary, for the United States to insist that it needs the threat of the use of nuclear weapons to deter potential state and non-state adversaries raises the question of why other, much weaker nations, confronted by hostile neighbors, do not need them as well (or even more). Moreover, a U.S. first-use policy reinforces the value and prestige attributed to nuclear weapons and undermines efforts by the United States to persuade other nations to refrain from developing their own nuclear arsenals.

Current U.S. nuclear use policy is also unwise in that it lacks any political rationale. As the series of its post–Cold War interventions has demonstrated, the United States is prepared to undertake military missions for a number of reasons: to promote democracy (Haiti), resolve civil conflicts (Somalia), protect allies (Kuwait), promote regime change (Iraq), pursue terrorists (Afghanistan), and protect human rights (Kosovo). At the same time, the United States has made it clear that it seeks to perform these mainly humanitarian missions with a minimum amount of harm to innocent civilians and the target country.

In none of these interventions would nuclear weapons have been an appropriate or necessary means to a political end. It is not possible to reconcile the use of a nuclear weapon with the pursuit of democratic and humanitarian goals. But as long as the United States refuses to rule out the potential use of nuclear weapons in virtually any contingency, it is difficult to avoid creating the impression that the spread of democratic values is being backed by a nuclear threat. To many countries, this policy seems both deceitful and dangerous and suggests that the only way to meet the U.S. challenge is to possess nuclear weapons of their own.

Some proponents of the current nuclear use policy argue that the United States will probably never employ nuclear weapons except in retaliation for an actual nuclear attack or to prevent an imminent one. Certainly, memoirs by senior policymakers during the First Gulf War make it clear that whatever was implied, the United States never had, under any circumstances, the intention of using nuclear weapons during the war. Nonetheless, the proponents claim that the uncertainty or “calculated ambiguity” as to the nature of the U.S. response to a high-profile security challenge still serves to deter a potential aggressor from initiating a CW or BW attack. If indeed the United States continues to maintain that all options are on the table but does not actually intend to use nuclear weapons in the situations envisaged by the Pentagon’s draft Doctrine for Nuclear Operations cited above, then “calculated ambiguity” as a policy loses its credibility and the United States is saddled with a doctrine that provokes hostility rather than promoting security.

The next administration could also make it clear that the United States does not intend to resume nuclear testing in order to develop new nuclear weapons. There will be a new Congress in 2009 that, if the new administration is so committed, might be persuaded to reconsider the Senate’s 1999 rejection of the CTBT. If China joined with the United States and the three other members of the P-5 that have already ratified the treaty, it would make it considerably more difficult (but not impossible) for the major nuclear powers to begin nuclear testing again.

Ratifying the CTBT would not, however, immediately solve the challenges involving India, Pakistan, North Korea, or Israel, which currently do not seem to have the political incentive to sign and ratify the agreement or to break the moratorium on testing. It would, however, delegitimize nuclear testing, curb substantial arsenal modernization by the P-5, and reinforce U.S. credibility in its efforts to convince other nations of the need to stem proliferation. If the next administration cannot muster enough senatorial support to see the CTBT through to ratification, it should publicly recommit to the self-imposed testing moratoria—as the current administration has done after a fashion—that has been in place for all of the P-5 since 1996. (Russia has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1990; the United States and the United Kingdom have not tested one since 1992.)

The continued testing moratorium should be combined with a disavowal of efforts to develop new warheads to carry out nuclear use policies. The administration argued in its 2001 Nuclear Posture Review that “new capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets, to find and attack mobile and relocatable targets, to defeat chemical or biological agents, and to improve accuracy and limit collateral damage.” The administration has been seeking funds to explore three new nuclear weapons: a “mini-nuke” (purportedly to reduce collateral damage); a “bunker-buster” (an earth-penetrating bomb intended to destroy underground facilities); and a “reliable replacement warhead (RRW)” to increase the longevity, reliability, and safety of the stockpile.

A U.S. first-use policy reinforces the value and prestige attributed to nuclear weapons and totally undermines our efforts to persuade other nations to refrain from developing their own nuclear arsenals.

Although one or another of these devices might be developed without proof testing (the bunker-buster, for example, is more a question of enhancing the casing than changing the physics package, and there are existing low-yield warhead designs available for a mini-nuke), those who champion these new weapons are likely to use the uncertain performance of these new systems, most egregiously the RRW, as a compelling reason to abandon the testing moratorium and resume nuclear tests. (One way to ensure that the RRW will not need proof testing, as Raymond Jeanloz, chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control, pointed out at the 2005 Arms Control Association annual meeting, is to keep it within “design parameters that have a test pedigree.” This is certainly a possible design constraint, but the pressures to adopt more advanced designs and to test any resulting weapon will be extremely strong.)

The nuclear weapons that the administration is seeking are not ideal or even necessary for carrying out these missions. In the first instance, finding hard and deeply buried targets of high value is a strenuous and uncertain intelligence task. If such sites are correctly identified (a big “if”), many of them could be destroyed or disabled or access to them denied by conventional precision-guided munitions. On the other hand, if they are misidentified and a nuclear weapon destroys a nonmilitary industrial site and the neighborhood surrounding it, the United States would be subject to international outrage of the sort that has shrouded the invasion of Iraq.

The Bush administration’s broadening of the range of scenarios in which nuclear weapons might be used is unwise and provocative.

In addition, any potential adversary would seek to put its important command and control or other military assets deeply enough underground or within mountains or inside tunnels to make them safe from such attack. In that case, the hardened targets would either be unreachable or require weapons with such high yields that they would unfailingly inflict significant collateral damage (a mission already within the capabilities of weapons in the existing arsenal). Alternatively, adversaries might embed their high-value targets in civilian neighborhoods, inviting the United States to face widespread condemnation if these targets were attacked with nuclear weapons.

The same paradox surrounds attacks against BW or CW agents. The deeper the bunker and the larger the yield required to destroy it, the greater the collateral damage. Moreover, if the attack fails to neutralize the chemical and biological agents by thermal effects or radiation, then the agents themselves may be dispersed and compound the lethality of the attack.

The administration also argues that the current U.S. nuclear arsenal is self-deterring because a rogue state leader could doubt that the United States would employ large-yield warheads against an adversary. Low-yield mini-nukes, the administration claims, would be a much more credible deterrent or response. There are serious drawbacks to this argument. One is that making nuclear weapons more usable, particularly when they are not militarily required, ultimately endangers U.S. security by breaking down the barriers to the use of any nuclear device. Second, the idea that a mini-nuke will reduce collateral damage is truly nuclear “newspeak,” given the destructive power of even a small-yield weapon. (A 12.5-kiloton weapon could cause 20,000 to 80,000 deaths. The severe blast damage radius of a 5-kiloton weapon would be more than 0.6 kilometer.) Finally, the call for usable mini-nukes implies that the current force of 6,000 deployed nuclear warheads, including some weapons with very small yields, is neither a valid deterrent nor a credible retaliatory threat.

Weapons of last resort

As another important aspect of the delegitimization process, the United States, rather than preserving and heralding the right of first use, should urge the international community to ban the use of nuclear weapons except in retaliation for nuclear use by others or, particularly in the case of small states such as Israel, as a last resort if the survival of the nation is at risk. (Eliminating the possession of nuclear weapons, the ultimate ideal outcome, will be obtained incrementally, if at all, after transparency and confidence are established and specific regional security concerns are removed.) The NATO alliance came close to this policy formulation in its London Communiqué of 1990, when it sought to reassure Russia by deeming nuclear forces “truly weapons of last resort” and again in the 1999 Strategic Concept when it noted that “the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated …are therefore extremely remote.”

The European allies of the United States can be helpful in this regard. They need to abandon their attachment to European-based U.S. tactical nuclear weapons: the 200 to 400 bombs deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, which constitute the last remnants of the Cold War flexible response policy. In the early years of the Clinton administration, the Pentagon concluded that there was no longer any military requirement for these weapons in Europe. The allies, however, were loath to break the nuclear umbilical cord at that time, and the weapons remain as a symbol in the European mind of U.S. commitment to continental security. If the Europeans can wean themselves of this perverse sign of solidarity, which might have been made easier by erratic and bellicose U.S. behavior in this decade, a half-dozen NATO allies might finally be cleared of nuclear weaponry. In turn, this move might encourage Russia to reciprocate by constraining its tactical nuclear weapons stockpile.

A declaration of non-use would be difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to negotiate. The nuclear weapon states have already pledged not to attack non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons (the “negative security assurances” noted above) as follows: “The United States reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against [non-nuclear-weapon] states parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons except in case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a state toward which it has a security commitment, [carried out or sustained] by [such a non-nuclear-weapon state in association or alliance with] a nuclear-weapon [state].”

This declaration has been acceptable to the P-5 for some years; the U.S. version of the statement was first enunciated in 1978 under President Carter. According to a 2004 poll conducted by Stephen Kull, director of the University of Maryland’s Center on Policy Attitudes, 57% of the respondents believed that the United States should “reconfirm” this commitment “so as to discourage countries from trying to acquire or build nuclear weapons.” The existing declaration could easily be rewritten (as notionally indicated by the parentheses above) to make nuclear weapons use justified only in response to nuclear attack. Of course, drafting such a statement is much easier than marshalling the political forces to endorse it, but if the United States takes the lead in seeking to delegitimize the use of nuclear weapons under any but the most extenuating circumstances, it may be possible to rally the other P-5 members to the declaration.

As a final aspect of delegitimization, the next U.S. administration should encourage the creation of NWFZs, the goal of which would be to make increasing areas of the globe off limits to nuclear weapons. Although the NPT is a nearly universal agreement, it is also an agreement with 187 very diverse members stretched over vast geographical and cultural distances and whose ultimate arbiter is the UN. Regional NWFZs are smaller units and, in theory at least, deal with the national security concerns of a “neighborhood” of member states. The treaty-based NWFZs that already exist could provide model frameworks for the negotiation of new ones. (Nonsovereign territories such as Antarctica, outer space, and the seabed are already off limits to nuclear weapons.)

Thus far, however, the United States has resisted going along fully with new zones being created. The United States signed the protocol to the African NWFZ Treaty, but with a reservation allowing the use of nuclear weapons against states in the NWFZ that use CWs or BWs. The United States, along with other nuclear weapon states, also has not signed the relevant protocol to the Southeast Asia NWFZ Treaty, claiming that it conflicts with the right of passage; that is, with the transport of nuclear cargoes through international waters and airspace. (Because the United States no longer has nuclear weapons on surface ships, this objection could be reconsidered.) Rather than taking exception to these zones, the United States should welcome them as reinforcing its own security goals and seek to strengthen efforts elsewhere in the world to rule out the presence of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are a clear and present danger to the United States. Because the United States is at present unwilling to negotiate treaties or enter into binding agreements, the burden of securing our future will fall on the next president. If his (or her) administration hopes to enhance U.S. security against the most serious threats, it will have to do more than pursue terrorists or enforce nonproliferation. It will also have to reduce the attractiveness of nuclear weapons to itself and to the rest of the world. This will entail adopting policies that delegitimize nuclear weapons by reducing the incentives to acquire them and by relegating them to a deterrent, retaliatory role or to weapons of last resort. If we fail to wean ourselves from the idea that the threat or use of nuclear weapons can ensure our security, then we are likely to find that the cure for nuclear amnesia involves a nasty shock and an acrid smell.

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Cite this Article

Mendelsohn, Jack. “Delegitimizing Nuclear Weapons.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 3 (Spring 2006).

Vol. XXII, No. 3, Spring 2006