Nina Tannenwald and Rizwana Abbasi are two ground breaking scholars who introduced the thinking about nuclear weapons use and non-proliferation taboos.
Tannenwald is the proponent of the normative belief that the use of nuclear weapons is an unthinkable policy option. She considers that a taboo on nuclear use is not the straight-forward outcome of rational thinking alone, as is commonly believed. Dr. Abbasi, on the other hand, introduced the concept of a new nuclear taboo, positing need for the establishment of new taboos against nuclear proliferation. This measure would add another layer to the framework needed to sustain the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons.
On these two taboos, it is perhaps not possible to completely proscribe use of nuclear weapons. The paradox of nuclear deterrence is that there is no point in possessing nuclear weapons if these cannot be used. In order to ensure nuclear deterrence, the threat of their use has to be credible. That is why the concept of a nuclear taboo cannot be considered as absolute in nature.
Just because United States is the only State that has practically used the nuclear weapons (against a helpless Japan, during World War II, to say the least), does not mean that the taboo on nuclear weapons use has the potential to gain the status of a law. Furthermore, the U.S. has not only dragged its feet on complete nuclear disarmament but continues to qualitatively improve its arsenal. Washington D.C. plans to spend almost one trillion dollars, over the next three decades, on its nuclear modernization program – essentially, vertical proliferation; thereby, affecting the second taboo too. Despite being the champion of disarmament and non-proliferation, the U.S. has also irreversibly damaged these two ideals by offering nuclear materials and technology to India that is not a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).
In the wake of such developments which threaten the sanctity of the global non-proliferation regime (NPR), there is a need for a third taboo to be introduced. Such a taboo will forbid the practices of selectivity, of the so-called world powers and champions of non-proliferation, which undermine the existing norms.
The persistent violations of the two existing taboos by the U.S. have resulted in a chain reaction. The provision of an exceptional nuclear trade waiver to India has opened flood gates for the country as thirteen other countries have emulated American precedence set forth in 2008, and continue to support the build-up of Indian nuclear capabilities. Every gram of Uranium that India imports from these proliferating countries, is another gram freed from its domestic reserves to sustain an ever-expanding nuclear weapons program. Further in this context, the NSG member States have also agreed to transfer nuclear-related technology or materials to India, which is a non-party to the NPT and interestingly is the country whose so-called Peaceful Nuclear Explosion led to the formation of this group - NSG. Indeed, this act has undermined the trust of non-nuclear weapon states in the NPT, thus further posing challenges to the non-proliferation regime.
As for the doctrinal policies regarding the use of nuclear weapons, China is the only nuclear power that clearly gives an unconditional no-first use (NFU) pledge. However, Beijing assures that the first user would not survive to fire the second shot. The eight other nuclear-armed States have the Boren’s law for first use, which is to mumble once one does not want to take a clear position.
Also, the conditional positive or negative security assurances are the proofs of impracticality of nuclear use taboo. A positive security assurance means a nuclear weapon state may respond with nuclear weapons if any of its allies is threatened with nuclear weapons by another. Likewise, negative security assurance is the commitment of non-use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon State. In case of India, though it has pledged NSA vis-à-vis non-nuclear weapon states, it has made it conditional. This means that despite having a declared No First Use policy, India may respond with nuclear weapons even if India or its forces are attacked chemically or biologically - anywhere in the world. This poses a considerable threat to the first taboo on nuclear use, and interestingly the global media fails to highlight this provocative Indian approach.
Moreover, the U.S. declassified documents have suggested that the U.S. has contributed to the undeclared nuclear weapons program of Israel, which shows that the U.S. itself remained a significant proliferator of nuclear weapon related technology. The U.S. continues to show disregard for the non-proliferation regime by sponsoring the rise of India’s nuclear capabilities. Such a situation effects of the third taboo explicitly aimed at prejudicial treatment of one State (India) at the expense of the security interests of another State (Pakistan), which is also a non-NPT member and shares a similar nuclear trajectory as that of India.
Ayesha Abbasi and Mahvish Malik are M Phil in Strategic & Nuclear Studies and Defence & Strategic Studies from NDU and Quaid-i-Azam Universities, Islamabad.