Michael KreponHumanitarian Consequences (Cont.)

[See the previous post. -Ed.]

Yes, every kind of weapon, if used against noncombatants, can violate the humanitarian laws of warfare. But nuclear detonations add a whole new scale to this problem. A single mushroom cloud, except under highly particular circumstances, will violate the humanitarian laws of warfare. And, if a single detonation triggers more detonations and all Hell breaks loose, even singular use cannot be justified. So, what are we to do with the approximately 16,000 nuclear weapons that currently exist?

The endgame of abolition provides only a placeholder answer to this question. Abolition is a long way off, and the pursuit of abolition is fundamentally a function of international and major-power relations. Only enlightened leadership and political accommodation allows for a process of nuclear subtraction to be realized.

We cannot predict when political conditions among states that possess the Bomb will be suitable to reach the point where they would be willing to divest their stockpiles completely. In the meantime, there is hard work to be done to achieve grudging reductions. Nuclear enclaves, regardless of nationality, hold tightly to weapons whose use will likely have catastrophic consequences. Nonetheless, these enclaves confer upon nuclear weapons powers of leverage that are illusory before detonations and irretrievable afterwards.

Demands for leaders in states with nuclear stockpiles to “find the political will” to reduce their arsenals aren’t much help, either. If these leaders have serious adversaries, they will need more than political will; they also need adversaries willing to resolve disputes and relieve anxieties.

What to do in the meantime? Non-nuclear-weapon states do not have the leverage to compel states possessing nuclear weapons to resolve their disputes; they don’t even have the leverage to get them to talk to one another about nuclear risk and arms reduction. Other kinds of suasion require care and foresight. For example, seeking leverage on weapon-possessing states by holding the Non-Proliferation Treaty hostage is unwise. These gambits are far more likely to weaken, rather than strengthen, the NPT. Holding the Treaty hostage to apolitical and unachievable goals will increase, not decrease nuclear dangers.

Again, what to do? Very ambitious, long-term goals only become possible by the avoidance of terrible setbacks as well as the steady accretion of positive steps. Since the cataclysm of nuclear warfare begins with the first detonation, prospects for avoiding a humanitarian disaster and the successful pursuit of abolition hinge on avoiding another detonation. Every year without a nuclear test or a battlefield detonation advances the fundamental principle for all progress in nuclear threat and arsenal reduction — that nuclear weapons do not have military utility.

If these norms are broken, damages will be compounded if norm breaking is perceived as offering net gains. Only North Korea has carried out nuclear detonations underground since 1998. This suggests that all states but one understand that the costs of another detonation carry undefined but sufficient penalties that exceed potential gains. If North Korea carries out another test, its neighbors, especially China, and the United States are obliged to do better than before in clarifying penalties. Simply reaffirming North Korea’s outlier status is necessary, but insufficient.

The dictum of penalties outweighing perceived benefits applies far more for battlefield use. If nuclear escalation cannot be controlled, then this penalty will be imposed quickly, with global humanitarian consequences. It is deeply unwise, however, to proceed on the basis that nuclear escalation is inescapable after singular or very limited use.

If the nuclear norm of non-battlefield use has been broken in a singular or very limited way, then the only way this norm can be re-established — and even strengthened — is for the user to be declared the looser and to suffer grave diplomatic and economic consequences. (Another way is for the user to lose by means of conventional firepower, but this entails grave escalatory risks.)

In macro terms, the continued diminishment of the utility of nuclear weapons – even as, and especially when states modernize their strategic forces – requires no nuclear detonations at test sites and on battlefields. This, in turn, suggests the centrality of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty for every worthwhile pathway to reduce nuclear risks and arsenals. It also suggests that the Obama administration’s renewed interest in the CTBT — in the form of teeing up another ratification vote for its successor – falls short of the mark.


  1. krepon (History)
  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Nuclear Zero is decades, perhaps centuries, away. Meanwhile, there is an ever-present danger that nuclear-armed nations may go to war and perhaps use nuclear weapons.

    One alternative to detonating nuclear weapons is to order evacuations of cities or other target areas. If the evacuations are performed, the targets are not bombed. Two nuclear nations at war can order mutual evacuations for as long as needed to obtain a ceasefire or other peace agreement. Evacuations are costly and inconvenient for both sides, but are preferable to the alternative of nuclear war.

    Evacuations are reversible and leave no lasting damage to people, property, or environment. The proposed punishment for wartime nuclear detonations is likely to have more international support if the nuclear-armed nations have a less deadly alternative, such as evacuations, that can be used to serve their war-time “needs” to deter or coerce.

    • Magpie (History)

      Oh, you “virtually” nuked Sydney? Well we virtually released an upgraded smallpox and you’re all dead. No, too late, you’re all dead! No take-sie backsies!

      The problem with this plan is that there’s no reason for both sides to take it equally seriously. We know that actually nuking a city would be FAR beyond the pale for anyone to actually do (in all but the most extreme circumstances). But to arbitrarily invoke a ghost bombing by treaty? People could do that any time they liked. It’s the terrible consequences of nuclear war that prevents everyone from engaging in it. Take away the consequences, and you take away the restraint.

      So next week when North Korea says “oh, you need to evacuate Seoul, we nuked it” – what then? “You don’t have an effective enough nuke or delivery system! We would have stopped it!”

      “We totally could have!”

      “Could not!”

      “Could so!”

      “Could not!”

      “Right then, you are in violation of treaty by not evacuating the city. Comply in 24 hours or we’ll nuke it for real”.

      ….and thanks, Jonah Speaks, for starting a nuclear war by giving people a nice easy gate-way drug/treaty.

    • anon (History)

      The problem with this proposal is that it assumes that major nuclear powers plan to use nuclear weapons to destroy cities. How would the evacuation of a city offset the planned use of nuclear weapon to destroy a critical military capabilty? If your war plans indicate that destruction of the target is critical to achieving your goals, and the only way to destroy the target is with a nuclear weapon, then what purpose does an empty city serve? Even a proposal that you evacuate a military target area, instead of using a nuclear weapon is absurd. Unless you plan to ask the evacuating country to destroy the target for you so that you don’t have to nuke it to destroy it.

      Our nuclear strategy does not plan to use nuclear weapons to punish cities. So, finding another way to punish the city isn’t going to eliminate the need for nuclear weapons in our nuclear posture or employment plans.

  3. Richard (History)

    If Russia and China did not have nuclear weapons they would be vulnerable to American conventional weapons. America’s economy is so much bigger than Russia’s or China’s economy, that America could act as a world dictator, Obviously China and Russia are relatively much better off because they can threaten to use nuclear weapons.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The problem is that the attitude here generalizes too far, that country Z having nuclear weapons prevents them from being too vulnerable to US conventional weapons, and Russia and China and countries X, Y, and Z are better off because they can threaten us with nuclear weapons.

      Most countries would not worry about a US threat in the modern era. As interventionistic as we’ve become, we didn’t militarily threaten very many countries in the last 25 years by any means. But if a country as poor as North Korea can decide that they feel threatened and respond to that by buying and building nuclear weapons program components and ICBM program components, and testing ICBMs and nuclear weapons, then the list of potential nuclear states (a limiting ceiling no higher than NK economic power of $28 billion exchange / $40 billion PPP; sufficient fear that the US might intervene against them) is significant.

      The CIA factbook puts 110 nations at or above that minimum economic level. Syria with the war going on is something like 2 plus times that threshold, with the central government controlling at least that much. Imagine what that conflict would look like if instead of having and having deployed some chemical weapons, they’d done so with nukes. Would anyone be intervening actively?… How many dead would that have produced?…

      Imagine a multiparty civil war in North Korea, if the leader falls and chaos breaks out. That could go nuclear. I am reasonably assured that’s been high in China’s deeper worries for more than the last decade. Their capital Beijing is in range…

      There are too many people whose idea of human rights is so far off western norms that they can’t be trusted with atomic weapons, and who control sufficient resources to build them if they wanted to.