On Nuclear Politics

This evening, President Obama announced a series of limits on the use of nuclear weapons against other countries, even in the event of a non-nuclear attack. The new rules are designed to curb the risk involved with nuclear warfare by removing some elements of gray area from the policies from the Cold War.

With the first use of the bombs against the Japanese at the end of the Second World War, the nuclear bomb has remained a central focus of American power abroad, representing a nexus in military/political power and scientific technology as a means of projecting the country’s might against its enemies abroad.

The atomic element of warfare became a missing link in airpower theory, providing a massive level of shock and awe that overcame even the massive fire bombings of Europe and Japan, and scientific advances allowed for the pairing of nuclear bombs and missile technology, allowing for an unstoppable weapon, fundamentally changing how warfare was conducted. (Lawrence Freedman, Makers of Modern Strategy, 736)

This change from conventional to nuclear warfare came with ever growing changes on the part of both the United States and the Soviet Union. With the USSR’s detonation of their own bomb in 1949 and their rapid advances in missile technology, the US response was to do the same, and with competing doctrines of mutually assured destruction, the threat of conflict between the two countries diminished, as two rational states found that the consequences would have been unacceptable. According to Freedman, “the study of nuclear strategy is therefore the study of their nonuse of these weapons.” (735) in a large way, the nuclear option is a chain around the nuclear countries, limiting their options and forcing alternatives, such as actions through other nations, the careful placement of strategic missile launch sites and a healthy dose of fear of their use.

With the current plan that has just been imposed, further chains have been placed on the nation’s ability to respond to threats to it’s borders. In the larger scheme of things, this is a positive move for much of the world, because it removes the possibility of destruction from US bombs.

But at the same time, nuclear weapons are essentially weapons that aren’t intended for use: their primary use is one of deterrence against a major enemy that maintained similar stockpiles and opposing political intentions.

However, the United States had still used the weapons once before, and the continual threat of hostilities allowed for the use of such weapons in extreme instances, and because of this gray area, any rational state would recognize the real threat behind a country armed with a nuclear stockpile. Removing this ambiguity, then, helps to realize the flaws in the country’s nuclear policy by removing the threats associated with it.

Still, this move shows change with the modern times, where warfare has changed from a series of rational states working against one another to far more unpredictable players on the field, ranging from terrorist organizations to irrational states. In this world, one much question the use of a deterrence-based policy to far more realistic expectations of the policy in the first place.