Nuclear Weapons Reconsidered

Nuclear Weapons Reconsidered April 8, 2022

Australia has some of the most deadly snakes in the world.  Fortunately, we haven’t seen any of them.  Our host in Queensland said that we shouldn’t worry about them.  He told us that they usually run away from human beings, that if we see one, we should just stomp our feet and the vibrations will drive them away.  “They are only dangerous when they are cornered.”

I immediately thought of Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president would be dangerous if he wins in Ukraine, but he may be even more dangerous if he loses, as he seems to be doing.  Frustrated, enraged, and humiliated, he has been threatening to use nuclear weapons.  With President Biden calling for him to be ousted and for him to be charged with war crimes, he is probably feeling even more cornered.

Now American officials and NATO allies are pondering what to do if Putin actually does use nuclear weapons.

From an Associated Press article by Ellen Knickermeyer, West, Russia mull nuclear steps in a ‘more dangerous’ world:

 Russia’s assault on Ukraine and its veiled threats of using nuclear arms have policymakers, past and present, thinking the unthinkable: How should the West respond to a Russian battlefield explosion of a nuclear bomb?

The default U.S. policy answer, say some architects of the post-Cold War nuclear order, is with discipline and restraint. That could entail stepping up sanctions and isolation for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Rose Gottemoeller, deputy secretary-general of NATO from 2016 to 2019. . . .

Gottemoeller, a chief U.S. nuclear negotiator with Russia for the Obama administration, said that the outlines that President Joe Biden has provided so far of his nuclear policy stick with those of past administrations in using atomic weapons only in “extreme circumstances.”

“And a single Russian nuclear use demonstration strike, or — as horrific as it would be — a nuclear use in Ukraine, I do not think would rise to that level” of demanding a U.S. nuclear response, said Gottemoeller, now a lecturer at Stanford University.

Well, that is probably a good policy, just as ousting Putin and trying him for war crimes are good policies.  But it seems foolish for officials to say so.

The policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) prevented nuclear war from breaking out through all of the tensions of the Cold War.  The threat that any country that used nuclear weapons would be retaliated against with nuclear weapons, so that both countries–indeed the world itself–would be devastated, made actually using the things taboo.

Publicly setting that threat aside surely makes Putin more likely to use nuclear weapons, whether smaller tactical weapons against Ukrainian targets or one of Putin’s prize hypersonic missiles against the United States.  Whereas the prospect of getting nuked himself might well restrain him.

Even if the American president won’t actually take that step, it is in America’s interest to make our adversaries think he might, so that they dare not take the chance.

Now, not only Russia but China, North Korea, and Iran are rattling their nuclear sabers.  And in response, other countries are considering acquiring nuclear weapons for self-defense against all of these threats.

The unthinkable is now thinkable.


Image by Alexander Antropov from Pixabay

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