NATO–Preemptive Nuclear Strike a Key Option?

We discussed in class today the use of preemptive force to respond to potential security threats and how this was a central component of President Bush’s National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States (2002). Now, according to the Guardian newspaper, it seems that “five of the west’s most senior military officers and strategists” have insisted that NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the

west must be ready to resort to a preemptive nuclear attack to try to halt the “imminent” spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

Calling for root-and-branch reform of Nato and a new pact drawing the US, Nato and the European Union together in a “grand strategy” to tackle the challenges of an increasingly brutal world, the former armed forces chiefs from the US, Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands insist that a “first strike” nuclear option remains an “indispensable instrument” since there is “simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world”.

The manifesto has been written following discussions with active commanders and policymakers, many of whom are unable or unwilling to publicly air their views. It has been presented to the Pentagon in Washington and to Nato’s secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, over the past 10 days. The proposals are likely to be discussed at a Nato summit in Bucharest in April.

“The risk of further [nuclear] proliferation is imminent and, with it, the danger that nuclear war fighting, albeit limited in scope, might become possible,” the authors argued in the 150-page blueprint for urgent reform of western military strategy and structures. “The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Remember that in one of our earlier sessions we wondered aloud if there were any institutionalized norms in international relations and we thought that maybe there was a normative injunction against the use of nuclear weapons. Nina Tannenwald has written about the “nuclear taboo” but suggests that in the aftermath of WWII, officials in the US and Europe thought that nuclear weapons would come to be seen as another type of conventional weapon.

She writes*:

In 1958 Lt. Gen. James Gavin, a principal promoter in the U.S. military of the development of tactical nuclear weapons, wrote, “Nuclear weapons will become conventional for several reasons, among them cost, effectiveness against enemy weapons, and ease of handling.” Indeed, during the 1950s numerous U.S. leaders fully expected that a nuclear weapon would become “just another weapon.” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles accepted “the ultimate inevitability” that tactical nuclear weapons would gain “conventional” status. Adm. Arthur Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Dwight Eisenhower, predicted in 1956 that the use of nuclear weapons “would become accepted throughout the world just as soon as people could lay their hands upon them.”

These leaders were articulating a view with a long tradition in the history of weapons and warfare: a weapon once introduced inevitably comes to be widely accepted as legitimate. In reality, however, nuclear weapons have come to be defined as abhorrent and unacceptable weapons of mass destruction, with a taboo on their use. This taboo is associated with a widespread revulsion toward nuclear weapons and broadly held inhibitions on their use. The opprobrium has come to apply to all nuclear weapons, not just to large bombs or to certain types or uses of nuclear weapons. It has developed to the point that uses of nuclear weapons that were once considered plausible by at least some U.S. decisionmakers—for example, tactical battlefield uses in limited wars anddirect threats to deter enemies from conventional attack—have been severely delegitimized and are practically unthinkable policy options. Thomas [End Page 5] Schelling has argued that “the evolution of that status [nuclear taboo] has been as important as the development of nuclear arsenals.” Evidence suggests that the taboo has helped to constrain resort to the use of nuclear weapons since 1945 both by reinforcing deterrence and by inducing restraint even in cases where deterrence did not operate.What gave rise to this taboo?

*In order to have access to the full article, you must be on campus or be a paid registered member of Project Muse.

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