by Anahad Kaur Khangura
The emergence of nuclear non-use is understood to be a significant norm of constraint in the international security arena. During the Cold War, non-use emerged as an instrument to maintain deterrence between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This longstanding tradition of non-use is surprising when one considers that with the inception of the nuclear era, it was broadly assumed that nuclear weapons would become a ‘standard feature of modern warfare’. In March 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower even stated that nuclear weapons should be ‘used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else’. However, the striking fact about nuclear weapons is that they have not been used since 1945. Nevertheless, nations are actively constructing nuclear weapons programmes to maintain their strategic interests.
In light of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is questionable whether the use of nuclear weapons would still be legal under the current laws of conflict set up under the Geneva Conventions. However, even though nuclear non-use stands strong today, there is no guarantee that nuclear-armed countries would not consider using such weaponry when their national integrity is under imminent threat.
Normative constraints on non-use
When considering the origin of normative constraints regarding the nuclear taboo, it is imperative to understand the meaning of the term ‘norm’. A norm could be defined as “a shared expectation about behaviour, a standard of right or wrong.” Research on the subject of nuclear non-use uses a variety of terms such as ‘nuclear taboo’ and ‘tradition’ to define its nature. Should nuclear non-use become a ‘taboo’, it could be identified as a “powerful de facto prohibition against the first use of nuclear weapons.” Indeed, violent instances such as the wars in Korea and Vietnam highlight that the US military addressed ethical and normative concerns while discussing the deployment of nuclear bombs, or the non-use thereof. These examples display that normative concerns have previously acted as driving factors within the USA’s nuclear decision-making. Such a taboo doctrine can also be affiliated with a prevalent repulsion towards nuclear capability and widely-held inhibitions on their use.
The scope of the normative aspect of nuclear non-use is that it can either restrain the use of nuclear weapons instrumentally, where it could appear in the ‘form of a perceived cost’; or it could curb their proliferation more substantively when the set of a country’s core values do not align with their use. In the past, the nuclear taboo has served as a ‘moulding’ component in the historical pattern behind non-use. However, one ought to remember that ‘norms do not determine outcomes, they [merely] shape realms of possibility’. As such, norms influence the likelihood of a certain course of action. By stigmatising the use of nuclear weapons, then, the nuclear taboo lowered the probability of nuclear weapons use. However, it remains hard to quantify such a statement without a legal component.
Legal constraints on non-use
Legal frameworks on nuclear non-use are an instrument to maintain mutual deterrence among adversaries. Legal constraints such as the No First Use policy (NFU), a pledge made against the using nuclear weapons unless first attacked by an adversary are beneficial in upholding the custom of nuclear non-use within a legal structure. Therefore, the mutual guarantee against the deployment of nuclear weapons, as it is based on internationally recognised legal conventions, serves as an incentive in preserving the tradition of non-use.
However, the current machinery of international politics is facing immense obstruction due to the lack of trust and confidence among nations. Think for example of the slow process in formalising the NFU policy between India and Pakistan. For this reason, legal restrictions are gaining momentum as they promote accountability and provide states with enhanced confidence regarding nuclear non-use by their adversaries. In addition to ensuring confidence, legal constraints on non-use are also supported by a framework of culpability which ensures repercussions upon any party which violates the clauses of any legally binding agreement.
Other constraints on non-use
While it is imperative to recognise the complementary nature between the legal and normative constraints on nuclear non-use, it would be misleading to only consider these elements in describing the structure of nuclear non-use and its function.
Whereas the realist approach towards non-use emphasises the maintenance of mutual deterrence through the regulation of material interests; constructivism approaches from the perspective of norms. Therefore, the overemphasis of the normative elements might overlook the need for maintaining strategic stability and the significance of rational self-interest which played a vital role in forming the non-use tradition at the height of the Cold War. Similarly, overplaying the legal frameworks might lead to ignorance on normative constraints.
However, both approaches are obstructed by deficiencies as the sole reliance on either realist or constructivist approach might be an incomplete approach towards understanding non-use. To avoid oversimplifying a complex issue, one ought to be aware that other factors also contribute to the longstanding existence of nuclear non-use as a custom. In fact, understanding the complexity of nuclear non-use requires the addressing of a combination of factors that impact a nation’s decision-making process towards nuclear weapons and their (non-)use.
There are major anomalies if nuclear non-use is only understood from a single vantage point. A notable example is the case of nuclear non-use between India and Pakistan. Both parties possess nuclear weapons and are also not bound by the legal confinements of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as the countries consider the treaty as a discriminative policy of disarmament that does not impose a fair and complete ban of nuclear weapons. However, despite their endemic rivalry and border insecurities regarding the disputed territory of Kashmir, both sides maintain it.
Multiple reasons could explain non-use in this scenario: it could be that both sides abide by the global non-proliferation norms that exist even outside the parameters of the NPT; both sides might be upholding the normative elements of non-use to avoid large scale destruction; or both parties might well be adopting non-use to preserve their global reputation as responsible members of the international community. However, the tradition of non-use should not be understood as absolute but rather be considered loosely, keeping in mind that states might alter the custom to elevate their national interests.
Additionally, legal frameworks can also be interpreted as a form of internalisation and institutionalisation of the nuclear taboo. Therefore, normative and legal constraints on non-use not only interact with one another but they also provide a “stabilising” effect on nuclear non-use. Consequently, the prescriptive nature of nuclear non-use can only be conceived in its true essence when an integrated approach is adopted which uniformly acknowledges all factors involved.
Anahad Khangura is a Master’s student at War Studies. Her academic interests are inclined towards types of political violence and counterterrorism strategies. Additionally, Anahad bears a keen interest in the security concerns of the Asia Pacific region, specifically in context of the trilateral relations between India, Pakistan and China. For her Masters dissertation, Anahad evaluated the adaptability of terrorist organisations in light of a comparative analysis between Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hezbollah.