Michael KreponStigmatizing Nuclear Threats

Verse of the week:

“Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure; men love in haste but they detest at leisure.” – Lord Byron

Lyric of the week:

You can climb a mountain
You can swim the sea
You can jump into the fire
But you’ll never be free
You can shake me up
Or I can break you down
Whoa-o-o-o-, whoa-o-o-o-
We can make each other happy
Or we can make each other happy – Harry Nilsson, “Jump into the Fire”

Arms control is built upon norms. Without norms there would be no norm breakers. Instead, bad behavior would threaten to become standard practice.

The most important norm is not using nuclear weapons in warfare. The norm of not testing nuclear weapons also matters greatly because it helps to stigmatize nuclear use. A third important norm is nonproliferation, which includes best practices for nuclear safety and security. A fourth, discussed in my last post, is respecting the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of other states. When this norm is broken, arms control is damaged. Arms control is revived out of need, not forgiveness.

I propose that we seek to add another “thou shalt not” to our list of norms — a norm against threatening to use nuclear weapons. If we could stigmatize nuclear threat making the way we have stigmatized nuclear testing, we’d be in a far better place.

Nuclear threats can be explicit, such as when forces that are integral to planning for nuclear weapons’ use are deployed to tense areas or their alert rates are increased to place an adversary on notice. Nuclear threats can also be inferential, rhetorical, thinly veiled, or some combination of the above.

The United States has threatened nuclear use far more than any other possessor. Barry Blechman, the Co-founder of Stimson, knows a thing or two about nuclear threat making. His book, Force Without War: U.S. Armed Forces as a Political Instrument, co-authored with Steve Kaplan, was published by Brookings in 1978. One of this book’s important conclusions was that the first fifteen years of the Cold War were the most threat laden. (The Cuban missile crisis took place thirteen years after the Soviet Union acquired nuclear weapons.)

Melanie Sisson, James Siebens and Barry have co-edited another important book updating these findings. During the period between 1970 and 1990, Washington issued twice as many nuclear threats as Moscow. After the Cold war ended, nuclear threat making dropped precipitously, but didn’t end. Washington relied instead on conventional military tools and operations along with diplomatic and economic levers.

Patterns emerge if we look beyond the Cold War competition to friction between other pairings of nuclear-armed states. Nuclear threat making typically begins soon after a state with serious security concerns acquires nuclear weapons. The same impulses that lead states to acquire nuclear weapons prompt severe crises and clashes over sensitive locales and disputed borders.

For the United States and the Soviet Union, the biggest flashpoints were Berlin and Cuba. China and the Soviet Union fought a limited war over a disputed border in 1969, five years after Beijing first tested the Bomb. India and Pakistan didn’t wait that long. They experienced a limited war over the disputed state of Kashmir one year after both brought their bombs out of the basement and tested nuclear devices in 1998. They nearly went to war again in 2000 and 2001, after militants based in Pakistan attacked the Indian Parliament building.

Beijing has issued far fewer threats with nuclear overtones than Washington and Moscow. The greatest incidence of Chinese nuclear threat-making has been over the status of Taiwan. Nuclear threat making has so far been notably absent during border clashes between China and India.

Nuclear threats have not changed outcomes when use could be countered in kind. Instead, the outcome of crises and limited wars have been determined by other military capabilities around the location of confrontation, the competing stakes in dispute, and the presumed costs and projected outcomes of staying in the fight. Time and again, the leverage that nuclear weapons were presumed to provide has been more apparent than real.

Paradoxically, nuclear threat making is even less useful when possessors face off against abstainers. Unlike 1945, when the United States detonated two nuclear weapons over Japanese cities to end a global war with over 50 million fatalities as soon as possible, another battlefield use of nuclear weapons against an abstainer would prompt global condemnation, forever stigmatizing the user.

As tensions increase between the United States and Russia, the United States and China, China and India, and India and Pakistan, the incidence of nuclear threat making might well increase. Dangerous military practices are on the rise and none of the contestants have invested in effective diplomacy to diminish ongoing disputes. Because of these trend lines, and because of the evident non-utility of nuclear threat making, it’s worth trying to foster a norm against this practice.

We have limited means of doing so. Nuclear threat making will continue, as disadvantaged states are still likely to vocalize these threats, and as Washington and Moscow never got out of the habit of doing so, even after three-quarters of a century of non-battlefield use. As long as leaders believe that threats are useful in crises, they will issue them.

How, then, to proceed? I propose that we make the conscious and collective effort to stigmatize nuclear threats whenever they occur. We can make the case against the ineffectiveness of nuclear threat making, but our strongest arguments are on normative and ethical grounds.

Any battlefield use of nuclear weapons is likely to result in additional use. Escalation control will be extremely difficult. Even minimal nuclear use, depending on the targets, yields, and weather conditions, could grossly violate the laws of warfare. Uncontrolled escalation would constitute a crime against humanity. Therefore, we argue that responsible leaders and states that possess nuclear weapons do not threaten their use.

We are obliged to keep hammering away whenever any leader of any state threatens the use of nuclear weapons. The norm of non-battlefield use is the most important norm we’ve got. If we lose this norm, we risk losing everything that matters.

So let’s stigmatize nuclear threat making, just as we have stigmatized nuclear testing. Our goal can be to reduce and eventually confine the incidence of nuclear threat making to outliers. Let’s make a habit of equating threats of nuclear weapons’ use with threatening crimes against humanity.


  1. Chuck Baynton (History)

    Readers of this Krepon piece (see 3d paragraph) might take the impression that a norm against threat of nuclear attack is a novel idea. It isn’t. It is one of the explicit prohibitions in article 1(d) of the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and I would argue that it is thereby already a norm—it emerged from a process which led to its adoption in 2017 by 122 UN member states.

  2. Michael Krepon (History)

    It’s not a novel idea, Chuck; just one in need of adoption by nuclear-armed states.
    Thanks for weighing in–