Why don’t we see nuclear weapons used in modern-day conflicts? The United States dropped two nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Since then, this weapon, which we now recognize to be the ultimate weapon, has never been used in war. But times are changing and global tensions in 2021 are high. Nine countries today are recognized as nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and together, they own over 13,000 warheads.
Nuclear weapons play an integral role in military strategy and could easily bring an abrupt end to ongoing global discord. And yet, nuclear weapons rest quietly throughout the world, unused except for ongoing maintenance or the occasional upgrade. It’s generally assumed that the reason NWS don’t actually use their bombs is because of concepts like deterrence theory or the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD). But perhaps there’s a deeper, more human-centered motivation: The existence of the nuclear taboo.
WHY THE TABOO?
There are certain practices in society that are so heinous, the thought of acting them out is inconceivable. These universal taboos serve as intrinsic agreements that we uphold to keep ourselves and each other safe. The nuclear taboo assumes that as a society, we have prohibited the use of nuclear weapons if not in reality, then in our collective consciousness. Nuclear bombs are effectively regarded as unusable, uncivilized weapons. This taboo was formed due to a mix of social pressure, power politics, and repeated behavior.
The public played a critical role in establishing the nuclear taboo, and will play an equally important role in sustaining it.
The social stigma against nuclear weapons didn’t begin immediately after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, 85% of Americans had a favorable view of the United States using nuclear weapons to defeat Japan during World War II. The threat of nuclear weapons landing on the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis changed this, however. This event, along with the general unease of potential nuclear attacks during the Cold War, helped anti-nuclear activism gain traction. The international community eventually began to stigmatize nuclear weapons out of both safety and environmental concerns. According to the latest poll, US public support for the US bombings in Japan has dropped to 45%.
Despite the strategic edge that nuclear weapons give to NWS, it’s clear that leaders don’t want to use them. The United States, Russia, and every other NWS has exercised restraint — even in times of heated conflict — because they understand that dropping the bomb has dire moral consequences for the international community at large. The threat of MAD may be a powerful deterrent, but it cannot explain the numerous near-misses that have occurred since various states began acquiring these weapons; nor does it explain NWS’ desire to build arsenals large enough to destroy not just one state, but many and multiple times over. And it is not just the major NWS that we should be concerned about. India and Pakistan only have 2% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, but are in an active arms race to acquire more. Both states have considered nuclear escalation as a legitimate military strategy in their decades-long battle over the Kashmir region and have engaged in direct confrontation despite pledging to a ceasefire in 2003. The threat of MAD, therefore, has not moved either state toward nonproliferation.
No country has dropped a nuclear weapon on another state in an act of war since 1945. At that time, the United States was the only country that had the capability to use the nuclear bomb. It only had to be used once for the world to see that the resulting destruction and loss of life clearly violated basic human rights. And despite NWS that legitimize nuclear escalation as a potential military strategy, no world leader has actually approved of its use no matter how tempting, feasible or clear the choice may have seemed. International order does not allow for the inordinate chaos that is nuclear combat, and thus global leaders act accordingly. This repeated pattern of non-use is what categorizes the nuclear taboo as a social norm that is upheld to this day.
WILL THE TABOO EVER END?
The danger in taboos is that over time, they become so ingrained in our society that its existence becomes thoughtless and taken for granted. The nuclear taboo will only exist until it’s disrupted. The professor who coined the term “nuclear taboo,” Nina Tannenwald, wrote: “Once the threshold between use and nonuse is crossed, one is immediately in a new world with all the unimaginable consequences that could follow.” The reality is, every day this threshold is closer to being crossed. More states are hoping to establish themselves as NWS in order to be seen as legitimate actors on the global stage. The rise of non-state actors brings into question the possibility of them acquiring nuclear material in order to transpose fringe ideologies. Global conflict overall is peaking due to immense economic and environmental stressors that are escalating quicker than we can solve for. To imagine the added global destruction that a nuclear conflict would impose is unthinkable. But once the nuclear taboo is violated, all of our established norms of nuclear nonuse become irrelevant.
Regardless of the social stigma against nuclear weapons, the NWS spend billions of dollars every year to expand and modernize their arsenal. According to a recent spending report, China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia are all suspected to have growing nuclear arsenals. China in particular outspent Russia, the world’s largest nuclear power, at $10 billion compared to Russia’s $8 billion in 2019. India’s budget was reported at an estimated $2 billion, Pakistan at $1 billion, and North Korea at $620 million.
The United States is projected to spend $50 billion per year for the next 9 years expanding our arsenal. As the United States. rapidly develops new weapons, our outdated nuclear-related policies are coming up short. Right now in the United States, a bomb could be launched at any moment, for any reason. Sole-use authority gives our president the power to order the launch of a nuclear weapon. Launching the missile must be deemed legal and legitimate by the US military, although their playbook is broad and decisions must be made within minutes. Once that decision is made, a chain reaction of other states launching retaliatory strikes is imminent.
SUPPORTING “NO FIRST USE”
Social stigmas only exist as long as they’re upheld. The public played a critical role in establishing the nuclear taboo, and will play an equally important role in sustaining it. In a world that is constantly reminding us that we are divided, we must stay unified in our shared sense of morality. The nuclear taboo exists because we all possess an innate drive to protect each other and our civilization. We must not take this taboo for granted, nor can we assume it will exist without active preservation.
An important policy called No First Use was reintroduced in Congress earlier this year after years of stagnation. Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is sponsoring this piece of legislation along with 36 democratic cosponsors. If passed, this would prevent the United States from launching a first strike. It also limits the president’s power of sole authority. Top military leaders oppose the bill and argue that the vague threat of a nuclear strike is enough of a reason for the United States to legitimately launch an initial strike. The problem is that this logic does not account for technical glitches or general misunderstandings which could very feasibly result in an accidental nuclear war. No First Use policy defines the threshold of nuclear use versus nonuse.
The American public holds a certain soft power that conquers the brutal existence of our nuclear arsenal every day. Representatives who support No First Use can help uphold our global norm of nuclear nonuse.
Alexandra Greig-Duarte is a fellow with Beyond the Bomb, a national campaign that supports nuclear nonproliferation through intersectional activism.