Michael KreponNorms of Responsible Nuclear Stewardship (cont.)

Quote of the week:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” — Theodor Seuss Geisel, “The Lorax”

Last week, I offered seven norms for taming dangerous nuclear deterrence strategies:

The norm of not using nuclear weapons in warfare.

The norm of not threatening to use nuclear weapons in warfare.

The norm of not testing nuclear weapons.

The norm of nonproliferation.

The norm of safety and security for nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials.

The norm of reducing nuclear excess.

The seventh norm deals with responsible interstate behavior. Nuclear norms won’t fare well as long as nuclear-armed states disregard the sovereignty of their neighbors.

Russia and China are not pre-World War II Germany and Japan. They want to increase their spheres of influence at the expense of the United States, not engage in aggressive wars to control their neighbors. Russia has inherent weaknesses. China has great potential. The United States has diplomatic, economic and military instruments that, if wisely employed, can counter these ambitions. The battlefield use of nuclear weapons is not among them.

Is “No First Use” the right way to characterize the most important norm of responsible nuclear stewardship? A broader formulation — something like ‘no use’ or ‘no nuclear use,’ or ‘no battlefield use’ might be better. Joan Rohlfing, who has given this much thought, prefers ‘prevent nuclear use.’ The bumper sticker version of this might be Don’t Start a Nuclear War. More brainstorming would be helpful.

However this norm is formulated, it would cause some additional angst within states that rely psychologically on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, especially in the Pacific where U.S. conventional, naval, and air power capabilities — not to mention U.S. diplomacy —  are not entirely reassuring. But neither do allies find the threat of nuclear first use very reassuring.

The weakest link of extended deterrence isn’t the absence of new low-yield options with assured penetrability that can reach targets from long distance within thirty minutes. The weakest link of extended deterrence is the notion of first use. First use is the failure of deterrence; retaliatory use is the essence of deterrence. Under the norms proposed here, there will be no shortage of U.S. retaliatory capabilities. This message needs to be conveyed to jittery allies alongside the core message of seeking to prevent any crossing of the nuclear threshold by diplomatic and conventional military means.

There is no greater or more important challenge before us than to extend the norm of not using nuclear weapons on battlefields. This norm is now almost three-quarters of a century old. Borrowing from Lew Dunn, our task is to extend this norm to the century mark: No Nuclear Use after Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the following 100 years. And to extend the norm of not testing nuclear weapons to 2045, as well. Tests are confirmations of utility and affirmations of power. Instead, we seek to convey the message that nuclear weapons are a breed apart. So far apart from other kinds of weapons that responsible states don’t even test them.

Sounds hard? Sure. But not as hard as stopping tests, which took four decades of hard labor, or getting to the three-quarters-of-a century mark without battlefield use despite intense crises, impulses toward preemption, and despite nuclear-armed states losing wars against non-nuclear-armed foes and despite limited warfare between nuclear-armed states.

How do we succeed? One day, one month, and one year at a time. Just like those who worked the problem before us succeeded. By making it through every crisis without the use of a nuclear weapon. By repeatedly challenging every state, including those led by authoritarian rulers in possession of nuclear weapons, to be responsible stewards. By hammering away until we are blue in the face about norms that define responsible nuclear stewardship.

How useful will nuclear weapons be if they haven’t been used in warfare for 100 years? How many nuclear weapons might national leaders think they absolutely need if they haven’t been used on battlefields for 100 years?

In the First and Second Nuclear Ages, we’ve defined progress or backsliding mostly in numerical terms. We’ve also been legalists. We seek numbers embedded in treaties. There is still great value in numerically based compacts and treaties. It’s well worth trying to extend and expand numerical limitations whether they are embedded in treaties or executive agreements. But we may well be entering a period where norms matter more than numbers.

We can succeed by championing norms even if we do not succeed with numbers, and it will be absolutely essential to champion a norms-based system if the numbers fall away. Along the way, it’s essential to push back against nuclear excess generated by over zealous proponents of dangerous nuclear orthodoxy.

Yes, this is daunting. But it’s also achievable.


  1. John7544 (History)

    When working with nuclear power, there is definitely a need to maintain strict procedural protocols to ensure the highest safety standards and eliminate any risk of contamination or radiation poisoning. Nuclear from uranium is perhaps the greatest risk and should be mined autonomously and processed to ensure minimal exposure and contamination to the surrounding environment or to people. We need safeguards in place throughout every step of the process and be meticulous about what those potential risks could be and take action to prevent those risks. With nuclear there is great promise, but it must be used with great respect and responsibility or people can get hurt and we don’t intend to learn lessons the hard way. We cannot take the endeavor to employ nuclear power with any sense of laxity whatsoever because there is no room for error.

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