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Opinion

October 5, 2017

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The nuclear taboo

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

Last month, the world observed the 72nd anniversary of the dropping of atomic weapons on Nagasaki and Hiroshima – the only acts of nuclear warfare in history.

This has led some observers to believe that nuclear weapons will never be used again. But a deep analysis of global nuclear politics does not warrant high levels of optimism. The tradition of the non-use of 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, an American economist and professor of nuclear strategy, believes that the reason for 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. Deterrence advocates would argue that the non-use of nuclear weapons could be explained by the near-universal fear of mutually assured nuclear destruction. But it does not explain why these weapons have not been used in the absence of a credible threat of nuclear retaliation.

Meanwhile, 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 that is 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 concluded that a nuclear attack on Russia could kill millions of Russians and destroy 40 percent of Soviet industrial capability but a complete capitulation of Soviet troops would remain impossible. In October 1951, the US conducted an exercise involving dummy nuclear weapons used against North Korea. The data showed the ineffectiveness of the weapons owing to difficulties involved in the identification of enemy troops in a timely manner.

However, the then US president Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, not only continued to debate the feasibility of limited use of nuclear weapons but also spent considerable political capital in preparing public opinion in favour of the use of atomic weapons. In 1954, the US reportedly considered using atomic weapons against North Vietnam. Luckily, military strategists declared the nuclear option to be militarily and technically unfeasible 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”. Russia does not have any stated ‘no-first-use’ policy but is 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 China’s no-first-use policy has been driven by reputational concerns because the goals of nuclear disarmament have never been central to its nuclear strategy.

The nuclear policies of Pakistan, India and Israel have also done little to strengthen the tradition of the 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 approve their use in the throes of a nationalist plague. The situation is not too different in India. 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 it continues to build nuclear weapons while maintaining a policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity. In 2006, Ehud Olmert, the then prime minister of Israel, acknowledged the existence of a nuclear programme but later had to retract his statement under domestic pressure.

This suggests that the 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.

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