Quote of the week:
“The hope of civilization…lies in international arrangements looking, if possible, to the renunciation of the use of the atomic bomb.”
— Harry S Truman
Testing nuclear weapons and using them in warfare are linked: testing demonstrates resolve and confirms the military effectiveness of battlefield use. Conversely, the norms of not testing and not using nuclear weapons as instruments of warfare are also linked. Realistic testing is an essential and normal aspect of the weapons’ development process. By refraining from underground and atmospheric testing of nuclear devices to confirm their war-fighting effects, states inferentially acknowledge that the use of these weapons on battlefields is not normal. Whether nuclear-armed states have affirmed No First Use pledges or not, they recognize that nuclear weapons are to be used only in extremis.
To grasp how important the norms of not testing and using nuclear weapons on a battlefield are, imagine that these norms do not exist or have been broken. What would the world look like if additional states joined North Korea in disregarding the norm against nuclear testing? What would the world look like if mushroom clouds appeared on a battlefield after seven decades of nonuse?
The world would look like the day after Nagasaki, only far worse. Instead of a handful of nuclear devices possessed by one state – a demonstrably unstable and unsustainable situation — there would be perhaps 15,000 nuclear weapons in the possession of eight or nine states and plenty of fissile material to add to this number.
The most basic reason why the recurrence of a post-Nagasaki world would be more dangerous is because the potential for destruction would be immensely greater. Other than North Korea, nuclear-armed adversarial pairings hold three- or four-digit sized arsenals. These arsenals cannot be nullified by defenses.
Another reason is that the reappearance of one or more mushroom clouds could deal a serious, severe, or mortal blow to the existing safety net of treaties, constraints and norms to reduce nuclear dangers. The best-suited adjective here would depend on how a war involving the use of nuclear weapons would end and how extensive the humanitarian consequences would be.
The breakdown of the norm against battlefield use would lead onlooking nuclear-armed adversaries to question the viability of nuclear deterrence in their own national security strategies. Nuclear enclaves would likely conclude that deterrence failed because of weakness in another nuclear-armed state’s force readiness or the characteristics and size of its arsenal. Some states could react by resuming nuclear testing and by taking other measures to demonstrate the strength of their own deterrents.
Concurrently, the reappearance of mushroom clouds would prompt widespread revulsion against the Bomb and a concerted push for abolition, as was the case after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This campaign would be led by states that have rejected the possession of nuclear arms and championed the Ban Treaty. These states would be joined by strong civil society campaigns against the Bomb.
These diametrically opposed responses to the battlefield use of nuclear weapons could add more tension than the Nonproliferation Treaty can bear – especially if the appearance of mushroom clouds prompts another state or states to withdraw from the NPT, either to make a political statement or to seek the Bomb.
Any serious investigation of a wide possibility of outcomes involving the battlefield use of nuclear weapons and the resumption of nuclear testing by additional states would conclude that they range mostly between bad and truly awful. Thinking the unthinkable clarifies how essential the two norms of no mushroom clouds and no nuclear testing are to regional and international security.
So what have national leaders done lately to strengthen the norm against nuclear testing and, inferentially, battlefield use? In the waning months of the Obama administration, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2310 reaffirming the Comprehensive Test Ban’s Treaty’s value and, more pointedly, existing moratoria on testing. It also encouraged states to continue to fund the Treaty Organization and the global services it provides. UNSCR 2310 was hortatory; it hasn’t prevented boll weevils within the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill from gnawing away at the nuclear safety net by slashing the CTBT Organization’s funding. Boll weevils have long sought to remove impediments to the resumption of U.S. testing — one reason why the UNSCR’s reaffirmation of the Treaty was a useful exercise. Besides, it was the best the Obama administration could do for the CTBT over eight years.
What else might be done to strengthen the norm against nuclear testing while awaiting the CTBT’s long-delayed entry into force? One way would be to turn the Treaty’s Article XIV Conferences from snooze-fests into high-powered affairs attended by religious and world leaders. Article XIV Conferences are convened every other year to facilitate the Treaty’s entry into force. As presently constituted, they fail in their intended purpose and also provide zero counter-pressure to the possible resumption of nuclear testing and battlefield use of nuclear weapons. An opportunity to reinforce the two most essential norms to reduce nuclear dangers is being wasted.
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on January 4, 2018.