Michael KreponThe Canonical Affirmation

Prophesy of the week:

“Among my people are the wicked who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice.” – Jeremiah, 5:26-28

The first time President Ronald Reagan announced that “A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought” was before the Japanese Diet on November 11, 1983. Reagan was sensitive to public concerns over the rocky state of U.S.-Soviet relations. His speech came nine days before the airing of an ABC movie, “The Day After,” depicting the impact on Lawrence, Kansas of a nuclear strike on Kansas City. The Day After was watched by 100 million viewers. Reagan had an advance screening. It’s hard to identify a television program that has had a more dramatic impact on public and presidential consciousness of nuclear danger.

Late in 1983, Reagan also began to appreciate how disturbed key Politburo members were by his rhetoric, aggressive U.S. air and naval exercises around the Soviet Union’s periphery, his nuclear build-up and arms reduction proposals that seemed designed to be rejected, and by his beloved Strategic Defense Initiative.

Even as he was speaking in Tokyo, U.S. and NATO authorities were engaged in a command post exercise practicing nuclear release procedures. This exercise, Able Archer 83, worried key members of the Politburo even more, including General Secretary Yuri Andropov. Soviet intelligence operatives were ordered to step up their surveillance of indicators that Washington might be preparing for a nuclear war. They looked for the number of lights on at the Pentagon late into the night and they checked activity at blood banks.

Reagan’s formulation before the Diet didn’t change anything. All good affirmations require repetition. He repeated it during his 1984 State of the Union address. Speaking directly to his audience in the Soviet Union, he said,

“There is only one sane policy, for your country and mine, to preserve our civilization in this modern age: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used.”

Reagan’s canonical statement was, in effect, a declaration of No Use. Saying this twice still wasn’t convincing because only a very few people then knew that Reagan was dead set against Armageddon on his watch and harbored abolitionist views.

When Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev jointly repeated this formulation at their Geneva summit in 1985, skeptics began to take notice. The canonical affirmation by then had congealed into “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” When Reagan and Gorbachev began to act in accordance with this belief, scales fell from before our eyes. Defenders of deterrence orthodoxy became alarmed. Both men meant what they said.

The affirmation of No Use lies at the heart of a norm-based global nuclear order. A safe global nuclear order requires no battlefield use, no nuclear tests, and no nuclear proliferation – vertical as well as horizontal. The first norm is now almost three-quarters of a century old. The second norm (with the exception of one outlier) is already more than two decades old. The third has yet to be put in place. Successful nonproliferation requires extending the first two.

A global nuclear order built around No Use is necessarily backed up by deterrence for as long as nuclear weapons exist. But deterrence alone is insufficient. Deterrence needs back-up to succeed because deterrence is a very dangerous business. Deterrence is all about threats; “strengthened” deterrence usually means sharpening nuclear threats, prompting counter-threats.

Deterrence needs reassurance to prevent mushroom clouds. Reassurance can take many forms but its most important elements are diplomacy and arms control. Deterrence helped prevent nuclear exchanges and major conventional wars since 1945. But deterrence had help from diplomacy and arms control. Deterrence and reassurance don’t work well if one isn’t accompanied by the other.

Deterrence and diplomacy can fail. There have already been two limited conventional wars between nuclear-armed states, and there could be a third. Nuclear deterrence doesn’t help when nuclear-armed states fight with states that do not have nuclear weapons. And deterrence offers no protection whatsoever against blunders and accidents.

Deterrence alone doesn’t create reliable lines of communication that are essential in severe crises. Deterrence alone doesn’t forge personal bonds between leaders intent on reaching agreements to reduce nuclear dangers. Deterrence alone doesn’t reduce nuclear force structure. Deterrence by itself isn’t stabilizing. Deterrence doesn’t prevent arms racing. What deterrence alone cannot achieve, diplomacy and arms control can.

We’ve forgotten what Reagan and Gorbachev taught us. We’ve forgotten how we managed to get through the Cold War without mushroom clouds on battlefields. The thinking of our political and military leaders has regressed. Many now believe that the keys to reducing nuclear danger are strengthening deterrence and maximizing freedom of action by shedding treaties like old-fashioned garments. But we can’t dispense with reassurance.

Diplomacy and arms control have a better track record than deterrence. Diplomacy and arms control have created and strengthened lines of communication, have facilitated crisis management, and have produced deep cuts in nuclear forces. Deterrence without diplomacy and arms control is a recipe for increasing nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons.

Deterrence is being dressed up at a cost of over one trillion dollars, while diplomacy is threadbare. The Trump administration has no evident skills in diplomacy and arms control. It has torn down the diplomatic and arms control achievements of its predecessors. It has great difficulty repeating Reagan and Gorbachev’s canonical affirmation that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Why? Because to repeat these words might weaken deterrence. But deterrence isn’t undermined by the current state of U.S. nuclear forces; it is undermined by weak leadership, the absence of diplomacy, and the demise of arms control.

Note to readers: This essay previously appeared in Forbes.com.


  1. E. Rhym (History)

    Diplomacy and arms control are NOT the same. The latter is a subset of the former. Accordingly, it is one diplomatic tool among many, and one which has a time and place.

    Now is NOT the time or place for arms control.

    Rewarding Russian bad behavior — as evidenced by their violation of the INF Treaty, their unlawful suspension of the CFE Treaty, their inconsistent implementation of the Open Skies Treaty and Vienna Document, their questionable behavior regarding the CWC, and their dubious “compliance” with the CTBT — by extending New START and/or engaging in new arms control negotiations would be incredible, because Russian adherence to arms control constraints lacks credibility.

    And should the U.S. reward Russia’s bad behavior by extending New START unnecessarily — especially when New START does NOT constrain the new strategic weapons Russia is developing, this would further undermine the United States’ ability to hold Russia to account for its bad behavior.

    President Reagan understood how to pursue his ideals in context of reality.

    Recall the USSR began deploying SS-20s in Europe in the early 1970s. US efforts to constrain Russian SS-20 deployments through arms control for years went nowhere.

    President Reagan understood the need to pursue “peace through strength” — in both deterrence and diplomacy. So he ordered the buildup and deployment of Pershing II IRBMs and BGM-109 GLCMs in Europe — and conducted the necessary diplomacy with NATO allies to bolster the political resolve necessary to uphold our collective defense posture and nuclear burden sharing.

    What was Russia’s reaction? The Soviets stormed out of arms control negotiations in 1983 in hope of fracturing NATO’s resolve and inducing the U.S. to return to the negotiating table on terms favorable to Moscow (i.e., terms that kept U.S. systems out of Europe but allowed the SS-20 deployments to continue).

    But President Reagan held his ground — his diplomatic ground. And it was only when the Soviets saw that President Reagan was willing to forego arms control negotiations and focus on building U.S. & NATO military strength (with diplomatic solidarity) that they chose finally to return to the negotiating table in 1985. Reagan was then in a better diplomatic position to deal with Moscow on more favorable terms — terms that enabled legitimate constraints to be agreed on intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

    Today, Moscow has dispensed with the INF Treaty constraints and currently is ignoring U.S. calls to declare their new strategic weapons systems under development to be “new kinds” of strategic offensive arms subject to New START. So, New START is rapidly following INF and becoming obsolete, because it has no means of constraining Russia’s new strategic offensive arms.

    The United States could enter into new negotiations. Timing for such action is subject to debate. But one should certainly learn from the historical precedent of the President Reagan and his Administration.

    President Reagan understood there was a time to negotiate and a time to press ahead with nuclear modernization and deployment. The diplomatic door remained open to negotiations — but not on Moscow’s terms. For Reagan to resume arms control negotiations, the constraints had to be legitimate and meaningful.

    Likewise, now is the time for the United States to take a strategic pause in arms control and re-calibrate what is necessary to create the conditions necessary to engage in beneficial arms control arrangements. Rolling into another arms control agreement merely for the sake of having an agreement is short-sighted and risks creating/furthering a false sense of security in the midst of an increasingly unfavorable strategic balance–which is inherently dangerous to both deterrence and diplomacy.

  2. John Hallam (History)

    The above comments are frankly bonkers.

    The very opposite to the above comment is in fact the case: Now is above all a time when arms control and risk reduction are imperative. In the absence of such, we run the serious risk of either an India-Pakistan nuclear war with catastrophic global climatic consequences, or a NATO-Russia nuclear exchange which would terminate civilization. Reagan and Gorbachev in 1983-87 understood this. We now seem to have forgotten.

    A reaffirmation that ‘A Nuclear war canot be won and must never be fought’, followed up by commonsense and not at all radical risk reduction measures, leading then to arms control measures and finally (sooner rather than later) to complete elimination as per the TPNW, are existential priorities and must be seen and treated as such.

    If instead we follow the bizzarre nostrums advocated above we risk extinction, or at least a fiery end to what we call ‘civilization’.

    John Hallam

  3. John Hallam (History)

    By ‘above’ I am of course referring to the comments by ‘E. Rhym’ NOT the excellent piece by M. Krepon.

  4. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The two years with highest risk of nuclear war during the Cold War were 1962 (Cuban missile crisis) and 1983 (Able Archer exercises; Stanislav Petrov false alarm). The 1983 nuclear war risks were caused in substantial part by Reagan’s extreme policies toward the Soviet Union and Soviet leaders’ paranoid response to these policies, even to the point of (incorrectly) fearing a U.S. first strike. After Reagan received intelligence reports indicating how badly his policies were being misconstrued by the Soviet leadership, he decided to change his tactics (more reassurance, more diplomacy).

    The consequences of a full-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union (or U.S. and Russia today) would be globally catastrophic. Those not killed by the nuclear blasts, radiation, and fallout, will experience a severe nuclear winter that will last for decades. Smoke lofted into the stratosphere will block the sun’s rays, causing substantial loss of global food production and starvation of billions of people in all countries. In addition to all that, modern civilization will almost certainly collapse.

    • John Hallam (History)

      Amen, amen amen!

      We literally owe our existence to Colonel Stan Petrov on Sept 26 1983. he wasnt sceduled to be on duty that night, and had swapped his shift with someone else. Theologians go figure.

      We also owe bigtime to the Russian mole within NATO who managed to transmit NATO’s battle plan to the kremlin – thereby providing the critical reassurance that NATO did not mean to start WW-III.

      As for now – its been precisely US/NATO triumphalism and hubris, leading to the extension of NATO to Russia’s borders after an undertakiing that this would never happen, that has led to the much more agressive stance (or is it defensive?) that we see from Putin. It has to be remembered that NATO has been conducting excercises with nuclear -capable forces withing 70Km of Russia’s second-largest city, Petersburg.

      I’m not excusing Putins often iniimidatory postures toward the Baltic states in particular, though I do ‘excuse’ his policies to Crimea and Donetsk, which are ethnically Russian.

      Nor would I, if i were him, have ‘rattled’ my nukes quite so aggressively.

      But it IS at least understandable that Russia has a big chip on its collective shoulder.

      Pursuit of the policies and postures advocated by Mr E. Rhym would lead to disaster. Unfortunately thats the way we currently seem to be heading. The lunatics are in charge of the asylum and will soon burn it down with us in it.

      Unless something changes, and an arom control/disarmament process is re–started.

      A reaffirmation that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought would be a very good beginning. It is in fact agnostic on deterrence (of which I am not at all a fan), but above all it would dispel the nightmare that someone somewhere might think that nuclear war COULD be fought and meaningfully won – and start one.

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