75 Years On, How Will the Nuclear Age End?

 In Forces & Capabilities, Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste

Seventy-five years ago, U.S. nuclear weapons dev­as­tat­ed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For indi­vid­ual human beings, 75 years sig­nals near­ness to the end of life. But for the nuclear age, does this anniver­sary mark the begin­ning, the middle, or the end?

There are two dra­mat­ic ways in which the nuclear age could end: anni­hi­la­tion or dis­ar­ma­ment. If one ending is unde­sir­able and the other unachiev­able, lead­ers should pro­long life with nuclear weapons by making their use much less likely and reduc­ing their destruc­tive­ness in case they are used. Clearer adher­ence to the law of armed con­flict and greater under­stand­ing of the cli­mat­ic effects of nuclear war would serve both pur­pos­es.

Annihilation could come through war involv­ing arse­nals that dev­as­tat­ed not only the soci­eties of the bel­liger­ent coun­tries, but also the agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and eco­nom­ic mar­kets on which many other nations depend. Some nations would sur­vive, and some could retain nuclear weapons or ambi­tions to acquire them, but for the pur­pos­es of mark­ing epochs, we could say that the first nuclear age would have ended.

Nuclear dis­ar­ma­ment is a much hap­pi­er prospect. This is one reason that many in Japan and other coun­tries advo­cate it and sup­port the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. However, the treaty does not detail how nuclear dis­ar­ma­ment would be defined, achieved over time, ver­i­fied, and enforced. Nor have the nine nuclear-armed states done so, even though the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty oblig­ates the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures” to end the nuclear arms race and achieve nuclear dis­ar­ma­ment. (The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Center for Global Security Research just pub­lished a mono­graph by Toby Dalton and me that maps quan­daries a dis­ar­ma­ment regime would need to solve, “Thinking the Other Unthinkable: Disarmament in North Korea and Beyond.”)

The unde­sir­abil­i­ty of nuclear war and the uncer­tain­ty about how to accom­plish nuclear dis­ar­ma­ment sug­gest that we are still in the middle of the nuclear age. This middle age is pred­i­cat­ed on main­tain­ing nuclear deter­rence as a liv­able way to avoid anni­hi­lat­ing wars while search­ing for a dis­ar­ma­ment solu­tion. If deter­rence could endure with­out fail­ure, the nuclear age could tol­er­a­bly last for­ev­er.

Yet, nuclear deter­rence could fail. Indeed, the risk of fail­ure — nuclear war — is what makes deter­rence work. Everyone would be more secure if deter­rence could be main­tained with sig­nif­i­cant­ly less destruc­tive arse­nals. Nations that do not pos­sess these weapons (or par­tic­i­pate in alliances that do) are espe­cial­ly keen to be spared from the con­se­quences of other gov­ern­ments’ nuclear wars.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s response to an interviewer’s ques­tion two years ago epit­o­mized the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty felt by non-nuclear-weapon states. Putin said that if Russia’s warn­ing sys­tems detect­ed an enemy attack with nuclear-armed mis­siles, he would order “rec­i­p­ro­cal” nuclear strikes. “If there is this deci­sion to destroy Russia then we have a legal right to respond,” Putin said. “Yes,” he acknowl­edged, “this would be a global cat­a­stro­phe for human­i­ty but I, as a cit­i­zen of Russia and the head of the Russian state, would like to ask you this — what do we need a world for if there is no Russia in it?”

In their renewed arms race, Russia and the United States — and increas­ing­ly China, India, and Pakistan — let the the­o­ret­i­cal logic of deter­rence and the inter­ests of mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al estab­lish­ments ratio­nal­ize how many nuclear weapons of what type and which tar­gets they “need.” This think­ing is too narrow. It does not ask, in the words of Paul Ramsey’s clas­sic, The Just War, what is “the upper limit of sanity in the actual use of nuclear weapons”?

Two con­sid­er­a­tions beyond deter­rence might help answer this ques­tion: What number and type of nuclear weapons, det­o­nat­ed on which tar­gets, would be likely to pro­duce envi­ron­men­tal and cli­mat­ic effects that would threat­en the via­bil­i­ty not only of the “win­ning” com­bat­ant coun­try but also of non-bel­liger­ent nations? And what scale of nuclear war would clear­ly transgress the law of armed conflict (also known as inter­na­tion­al human­i­tar­i­an law)?

Data and models to assess the poten­tial cli­mat­ic effects of nuclear war have improved enor­mous­ly since the prospect of “nuclear winter” first emerged in the 1980s. It is time for the United States, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan (at least) to con­duct new stud­ies exam­in­ing the prob­a­ble cli­mat­ic effects of var­i­ous sce­nar­ios that drive their plan­ning for poten­tial nuclear war. Declassified ver­sions of such stud­ies should be made avail­able for inter­na­tion­al experts to ana­lyze and debate.

If rep­utable sci­en­tif­ic debate indi­cates little risk of agri­cul­tur­al cat­a­stro­phe, then nuclear-armed states would have a stronger basis for retain­ing the weapons and poli­cies that could pro­duce those sce­nar­ios. (Other argu­ments for dis­ar­ma­ment still could be valid­ly made.) Conversely, if openly debat­ed sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies iden­ti­fy sce­nar­ios that would be cat­a­stroph­ic not only to the bel­liger­ent nations but also to others, then it should be more dif­fi­cult to jus­ti­fy retain­ing arse­nals and war plans that are likely to pro­duce such harm.

Similarly, it is time to clar­i­fy whether and how the use of nuclear weapons can com­port with the law of armed con­flict. For decades, offi­cials in the United States have declared that these weapons are not aimed “at pop­u­la­tion per se,” or that oper­a­tions would spare cities “to the degree practicable.” The fuzzy lan­guage about tar­get­ing rep­re­sents an impor­tant and admirable fealty to the law of armed con­flict. Nevertheless, U.S. and other states’ war plans have called for det­o­nat­ing hun­dreds of weapons on tar­gets in cities, which would stretch any def­i­n­i­tion of legal­i­ty.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (like the Obama administration’s before it) affirms America’s com­mit­ment “to adhere to the law of armed con­flict [in any] ini­ti­a­tion and con­duct of nuclear oper­a­tions.” However, it does not explain how this would be done. The United Kingdom’s position is sim­i­lar, while the other seven nuclear-armed states are even less forth­com­ing.

Because nuclear-armed states insist that they are respon­si­ble stew­ards and retain these weapons only for legit­i­mate defen­sive pur­pos­es, they should be will­ing to explain whether and how they plan to adhere to the law of armed con­flict in the poten­tial con­duct of nuclear oper­a­tions. They should describe how vari­a­tions in explo­sive yields and num­bers of weapons and their tar­gets could increase or decrease the prob­a­bil­i­ty that use of nuclear weapons would com­port with the law of armed con­flict.

Arsenals and poli­cies that com­port with the law of armed con­flict would pro­vide more cred­i­ble and there­fore more effec­tive deter­rence. A state that has worked through and pub­licly artic­u­lat­ed why and how its poli­cies would be legal would pre­sum­ably be less self-deterred. This added cred­i­bil­i­ty could inform adver­saries’ delib­er­a­tions in decid­ing whether to under­take esca­la­to­ry actions up to and during nuclear exchanges.

The gov­ern­ment of Japan and the gov­ern­ments that defend or poten­tial­ly threat­en it are not pre­pared to live with­out nuclear deter­rence. By adding envi­ron­men­tal and legal con­sid­er­a­tions to the logic of deter­rence, they could great­ly reduce the hor­rif­ic con­se­quences of its fail­ure. Nuclear war with cur­rent arse­nals would make the suf­fer­ing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem minor by com­par­i­son.

George Perkovich is the Olivier and Nomellini chair and vice pres­i­dent for stud­ies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author most recent­ly of Toward Accountable Nuclear Deterrents: How Much is Too Much?           

Image: U.S. Department of Energy

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