There’s a big fight about what the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review will say about when the Biden administration might use nuclear weapons in warfare. Should the “sole purpose” of the US nuclear arsenal be to retaliate against first use by others? Should US declaratory policy be more explicit, embracing “no first use?” Or should Team Biden leave well enough alone, leaving these matters cloaked in ambiguity? After all, the essence of deterrence, as we have been repeatedly told, is that which leaves much to chance.
Treaty tear-down artists have left more and more to chance during the past two decades. The edifice of arms control has been badly damaged, beginning with the decisions by Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush to dispense with treaties that enabled deep reductions in nuclear forces. It’s been mostly downhill ever since.
When the Cold War ended there were guardrails in place against dangerous military practices, nothing to fight about, a raft of treaties, and conditions conducive to lasting nuclear peace. Deterrence, which is inherently about threatening punishment, was accompanied by the diplomacy of arms control, which was about reducing threats. After the Cold War ended, much of this historically successful work has been dismantled in favor of freedom of action. As NATO expanded, Putin’s disregard for treaties became more blatant. Dangerous military practices have been on the rise, not just in one pairing of nuclear-armed rivals, but in four (US–Russia, US–China, India–China, India–Pakistan) — three of which are playing out in Asia. There will be more pairings in the Middle East if Iran acquires nuclear weapons.
Every pairing increases the odds of the battlefield use of nuclear weapons. Two of the pairs — India and China, as well as Pakistan and India — engage in sharp border clashes. China has stepped up the pace of its build-out of nuclear forces. The Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea are hot zones, as is eastern Ukraine.
I recount the rise and demise of arms control in my book, “Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace.” Much has been lost, but some foundational elements of nuclear peace remain in place, especially norms against the use of nuclear weapons in warfare and against nuclear testing. I end on a positive note — revival. The same diplomatic techniques that succeeded in the past can succeed again, but only if we stubbornly insist that leaders in the United States, China, Russia, India, and Pakistan avoid nuclear catastrophe.
We have powerful arguments to hold our ground. Which national leader wants to break the moratorium on nuclear testing and initiate a cascade of tests? Which leader wishes to go down in infamy for breaking a seven-decade-plus norm of not using nuclear weapons in warfare? Since national leaders cannot be confident about escalation control — indeed, they have every reason to believe that if a mushroom cloud appears in warfare, many more would follow — the initiator and retaliator of nuclear warfare would be responsible for crimes against humanity and nature.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
We humans are a forgetful species. One lesson that has been forgotten is that arms control negotiations are necessary to open essential channels of communication. That’s how US–Soviet dialogue began in the deep freeze of the Cold War. At present, channels of communication between nuclear-armed rivals are poor in three of the four pairings. China, India, and Pakistan have no practical experience in strategic arms control; they reject lesser measures to ease friction, as well.
A second crucial lesson that we forget is that deterrence fails — repeatedly. Nuclear weapons don’t prevent wars between strong states and weak states, or between nuclear-armed states and abstainers. Nor do they help nuclear-armed states win the wars their fearsome weapons cannot stop. Deterrence has helped, so far, to prevent nuclear exchanges, but it has a poor track record in lesser cases. There have already been two limited border wars between nuclear-armed states: One between China and the Soviet Union in 1969, the other between India and Pakistan in 1999.
A third lesson, most important of all, is that nuclear deterrence is not only prone to failure, but it is also dangerous by design. Otherwise, deterrence strategists tell us, the Bomb ceases to deter. “Strengthening” measures for deterrence sharpen threats, prompting counter-threats. This is how, before arms reductions took hold, the United States and the Soviet Union amassed five-digit-sized warhead arsenals ready for battlefield use.
The simple, honest-to-God truth of the matter is that our lives and the natural world depend, above all, on not crossing the nuclear threshold.
Those who denigrate arms control talk about its “fatal flaws.” Whatever flaws particular treaties might have pale in comparison to the flawed logic of deterrence — a logic that demands that arsenals be primed for use. The flip side of deterrence is nuclear war-fighting capabilities: The same measures deemed necessary to strengthen deterrence can be employed to fight a nuclear war in the event deterrence fails. Nuclear-armed rivals habitually seek advantage and seek to avoid disadvantage. The twin impulses they rely upon to avoid nuclear war make escalation control very hard to achieve once a mushroom cloud appears on a battlefield.
The yield and the target of this detonation are therefore far less important than the act of the detonation itself. The mushroom cloud that ends almost three-quarters of a century of non-battlefield use kills the most important norm we’ve got to protect humanity and nature from a catastrophe beyond our imagination.
This is the heart of the matter. Debates over “first use” and deterrence doctrine are way too abstract. Public safety and environmental protection do not depend on word choice. The simple, honest-to-God truth of the matter is that our lives and the natural world depend, above all, on not crossing the nuclear threshold.
What we want, then, isn’t complicated. What we demand of our national leaders is straightforward. We demand that there be No Use. Period. We demand no use because any use in a nuclear-armed rivalry will almost surely lead to further use. Escalation is baked into deterrence: If a rival doesn’t respond to first use, then the constructs of deterrence fail, and fail catastrophically.
Of all the weaknesses associated with nuclear deterrence constructs — the disregard for accidents, breakdowns in command and control, human error, the presumption of effective, rational decision making in situations of unimaginable stress — the one most laden with hubris is the presumption of escalation control. National leaders aren’t asked about escalation control in the event the nuclear threshold is crossed. They have no good answers even if they are asked. The only way to avoid crimes against humanity and nature is to avoid uncontrolled escalation. And the surest way to avoid uncontrolled escalation is to not cross the nuclear threshold first.
Treaty tear-down artists rail against the weaknesses of arms control while being silent about the weaknesses of nuclear deterrence. To believe that we can find nuclear safety by deterrence alone is akin to believing that US expeditionary forces can pacify Afghanistan or turn Iraq into a model Western democracy. Except that the negative consequences of believing that deterrence works best without arms control are far, far more consequential. Deterrence without the diplomacy of arms control is a recipe for catastrophic failure.
We’ve become too insular in our thinking, too steeped in the language of our craft. Let’s get back to basics. Here’s what we demand: No Use. Period. We want and demand the indefinite extension of the norm we live by — no battlefield use of nuclear weapons.
Whatever our nationality, we understand intuitively that our leaders cannot assure us of escalation control once the nuclear threshold is crossed. We rest our case on this fundamental truth: Without escalation control — that is, without assurances that no leader can give — the first use of a nuclear weapon would constitute a crime against humanity and nature. Isn’t that more compelling than arguing about word choice in the Nuclear Posture Review?
Michael Krepon co-founded the Stimson Center in 1989 and worked previously in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. He received the Carnegie Endowment’s award for lifetime achievement in non-governmental work to reduce nuclear dangers in 2015. He’s written 23 books, monographs, and edited volumes, mostly collaborative efforts resulting from Stimson programming. His latest book, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace, is published by Stanford University Press.