Nuclear Warfare: A Conflict of Deterrence

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Nuclear warfare is often posited as essentially different from conventional warfare.  Certainly they are conceived of as so, since dominating the cultural imagination in the Second World War (Gamson, 1989, 2).  Dozens of films have been made depicting disasters caused by nuclear war in the past few decades, especially when the threat was most imminent during the cold war, and these films generally depict nuclear weapons as distinct from other violent weapons of war (Perrine viii, 1998). This differentiation is further mirrored in fiction which heavily suggests that psychologically, nuclear weapons are perceived as different and unique.  But does this psychological classification reflect real differences, or are nuclear weapons simply the most dangerous weapon of war on a continuum of deadly weapons?  Examining the history and the policy trends since the first use of the weapons, I argue that nuclear warfare is different not because the weapons themselves are deadlier, but because their damage is inflicted on all participants in the war; as a result, nuclear states pursue a policy of deterrence through mutually assured destruction (MAD). 

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To evaluate nuclear war and weapons in comparison with conventional war and weapons and determine their difference, if any does exist, I will use two main criteria.  First, I will examine the violent capabilities of nuclear weapons compared to war fought with conventional weapons and second, I will examine how these weapons are interpreted and used in international relations.  I conclude that the difference between conventional warfare and nuclear warfare is not the weapons themselves, as the damage in terms of destruction of lives, infrastructure, and landscape can be matched by other forms of violence; however, the way in which nuclear weapons perform this violence causes them to be interrupted differently, and this different interpretation means that the way political entities view and use them is also different.

Nuclear weapons are understood to be distinct from conventional weapons precisely because of their increased destructive capacity, a capacity which negates the goal of warfare.  Here, war is seen as a tactic used for the purpose of gaining power in a struggle between organised political groups. As such, it is a political instrument, “the resort to force to advance political purposes and to settle political conflicts between sovereign communities” (Cohen and Lee, 1986, 9).  In a rational political system, in order to go to war, the party waging it must believe that the end result will be conditions so preferable to the pre-war ones that they justify both the risk and the cost of war.  In short, “the object of war is to attain a better peace.  Victory in the true sense implies that the state of peace, for one’s people, is better after the war than before” (Hart 1974, 353).  If nothing can be gained by war, then it is illogical to wage.

Because nuclear warfare has the distinct possibility of destroying whole continents, it can be said it is distinct from conventional war. Moreover, the threat of its use can be utilised as an effective diplomatic tool in a way that conventional war cannot really match. This notion provides the foundations behind the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which assumes that the threat of global devastation is sufficient to deter states from conflict (Sokolski 2004, v). MAD also supports the notion that the possession or development of these weapons gives a state power, however it would be illogical for such a state to utilise them. For example, India views its official defence policy as “a doctrine which expressly calls for deterrence by threat of putative retaliation” via their nuclear force (Sokolski 2004, 293).  If India were to be attacked by nuclear weapons, so long as India still retained the possibility of striking back with its own weapons – a distinct possibility as the technology stands today – then its counter-attack would be destructive enough to the aggressor as to nullify the original aims.  In short, to a rational actor, nuclear warfare would never be worth the risk, and therefore, it can be suggested that possessing destructive weapons is the key to peace.

Unfortunately, the counter to this theory argues that nuclear weapons are not a special kind of weapon, and simply function as a deterrent today because they are the latest weapon.  Indeed, there is a history of other weapons which have also been seen as destructive enough to destroy the aims of war.  In the escalation of violence during World War II for example, the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only marginally more horrific in terms of destruction of life and property than the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden which were conducted through the use of so-called conventional weapons (Leviton 1991, 252). Moreover, the holocaust of Nanking by Japan early in the war certainly wrought similar levels devastation though it took the matter of days rather than seconds (Chang 2012, 15). Looking further back into history, civilisation-ending destruction has always been a consequence of war.  When the Golden Horde of the Mongols attacked the northern Chinese Jin, the most advanced and populated cities in the world at the time, the death toll was in the millions as the Mongols ground the cities into dust.  Moreover, at the time, it also appeared that death on that scale was both unprecedented and unlikely to occur again. The scale of this attack is demonstrated by this account from Arab historian Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233) “a tremendous disaster such as [this] had never happened before…It may well be that the world from now until its end…will not experience the like of it again” (Burgan 2009, 27).  Looking back even earlier to the Punic Wars, Carthage was destroyed with the Roman equivalent of weapons of mass destruction: salt sewn into the ground to prevent life from ever emerging again (Cornell, 2012, 443).  Biological and chemical pathogens are newer, but equally deadly and fast-acting: mustard gas, for example, became taboo after its effective use for mass-slaughter by the Germans in World War I (Price 1997, 61). 

This historical overview shows that the deadliness of nuclear weapons in terms of capacities to destroy civilisations and their civilian populations is not unique. While the decades of research and development since Hiroshima and Nagasaki have certainly amplified the deadliness of the weapons, their capability to kill is not unique. What has changed from the days of Carthage, though, is the speed at which this destruction is done.  This is because a state, once the victim of a nuclear attack, can possibility still retain the ability to launch a nuclear retaliation, and in so doing, create enough to do mass destruction to the victor.  Complete destruction has always been a possible outcome in warfare, but the ability to win a war and still be destroyed to the point that life is no longer sustainable is unique to modernity. As nuclear scholar Cohen writes, “a state in a post-nuclear war would not be which political system would survive, but whether any would” (Cohen 1986, 9).

This categorical difference of MAD makes nuclear warfare an irrational act, waged only by a nihilist system unconcerned with its own existence.  However, these weapons obviously play a role in the international system.  There are two reasons for this.  First, the weapons are not ubiquitous; only a few developed countries have the weapons, giving them a clear military advantage over non-nuclear states.  So long as this advantage remains, deterrence via mutually assured destruction is not possible.  This is one of the reasons which nuclear countries refuse to completely destroy their arsenals; moreover, it becomes a reason for non-nuclear states to pursue such weapons. “States will seek to develop nuclear weapons when they face a significant military threat that cannot be met through alternative means” (Sagan 2007, 54). Put simply, if two states are in conflict, and neither possess a weapon which will cause mutually assured destruction, the weaker state will seek such a weapon as an insurance policy.  At the same time, third party states both with and without such weapons will oppose the acquisition, as expanding the nuclear club is only an advantage to the state seeking admittance.

Because having nuclear weapons is so important for deterrence, states in possession cannot abandon them nor publically claim that they will not use these weapons.   This how the paradox of nuclear deterrence is reached.  States seeking to avoid nuclear warfare must therefore make a credible commitment to use them; if such a commitment cannot be made, then other states will not be afraid of attacking.  As Cohen summarizes: “threatening to do what would serve no political purpose [launch a war of mutually assured destruction] is the only way to avoid nuclear war” (Cohen 1986, 10).

This principle of nuclear deterrence leads to brinksmanship behaviour, where nuclear powers continually assert their readiness to use the weapons.   Such behaviour can be observed especially during the Cold War, where the USSR and the USA both threatened nuclear war precisely because they did not wish it to occur.  In the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, both states demonstrated their willingness to use weapons; it was because their wiliness was so well demonstrated that neither side felt free to use them (Trachtenberg 1985, 142). Had either power capitulated early, the other would have felt free to attack. 

Since the end of the Cold War, brinkmanship behaviour exists only between actively hostile states.  The USA, not having a serious rival in the unipolar international system, no longer needs to demonstrate its wiliness to use its arsenal.  Where brinksmanship is seen is between states such as India and Pakistan, where both states have reason to engage in conflict and both possess nuclear weapons (Kroenig 2013, 147).  

Adding to MAD, there are two other factors which determine nuclear behaviour: psychological categorisation of nuclear weapons as worse and more inhumane than other weapons, and the existence of non-rational actors with the possibility of becoming nuclear powers.  The psychologically distinct category of nuclear weapons arose in part due to the significant pushback against the weapons after the Second World War.  While the violence and destruction caused by the bombs was not significantly worse, as I earlier argued, the newness and manner of destruction caused them to be singled out for condemnation (Tannenwald 2007, 74). As a result, political leaders have come to see them as taboo – that using them or even advocating using them is a breach of ethnics, and that discussing using them in a democratic setting will prohibit election (Wittner 2009, 49). 

Unfortunately, the existence of a nuclear taboo creates a problem for democratic politicians who must, by the principles of MAD, continue to pursue brinkmanship behaviour. As a result, a type of doublespeak emerges from nuclear powers.  In order to maintain the image that they are humanitarian and with the added purposes of maintaining relative military power by preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, they must condemn nuclear force.  At the same time, however, these leaders must continually suggest that they are willing to use the weapons if necessary (Bundy 1988, 536).

Finally, in the post-September 11th world, nuclear powers have become increasingly concerned with the actions of non-rational or non-state actors who might use not operate by the principles of MAD.  Because non-rational or non-state actors have nothing to lose, they therefore have no reason to prevent them from using such a weapon.  As a result, nuclear policy of the twenty-first century has focused on containing weapons of mass destruction (Cirincion 2014, 293).  This focus on containing non-state actors is because, should MAD be properly used against other rational states with comparative military power, these actors represent the greatest threat to the nuclear state.

In sum, nuclear warfare compared to conventional warfare is not different in terms of the scale of possible destruction inflicted on the losing state.  However, because the destruction occurs much faster and the losing state is capable of inflicting such a serious blow to the victorious state that negates the entire purpose of war, nuclear warfare is unique.  As a result, the weapons have taken on a psychological taboo as well as a commitment by rational actors not to use them, precisely by threatening to use them.  These powers are also eager to see that nuclear weapons do not spread to new states or non-state actors. It is this paradox that has defined military strategy since the Second World War.


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