The sixth and ninth of August 2015 mark the seventieth anniversaries of the nuclear bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The total death toll exacted by these first ever, and as yet only, use of nuclear weapons may never really be known. Estimates range from 70,000 to double that number depending on the counting criteria used.
Nuclear weapons surely deserve the descriptor “weapons of mass destruction,” but it is also true that the incendiary bombs dropped on Tokyo during two days in March 1945, generating one of the greatest fire storms the world has ever seen, had a kill rate similar to that of the atomic bombs. In our times, a dirty bomb might have as horrifying an effect as a tactical nuclear weapon.
The nuclear bombs were dropped over three generations ago but their significance continues to resonate in Japan and around the world. Washington used its nuclear power against Japan to save the American lives that would have had to be sacrificed in an effort to pacify a Japan that in early August 1945 still did not consider itself defeated, and whose military tradition was continuing to push its men in uniform to fight to the death. Within a week of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, the Japanese Emperor announced that his country was ready to sue for peace.
Washington’s resort to the nuclear option has been a catalyst for the anti-Americanism that has been a constant feature of the post-war period. The underlying story has been that the American lives saved were worth more that the Japanese ones destroyed. An understandable judgment, this fails to take in to account just how many Japanese lives were spared when Tokyo elected to capitulate almost immediately after the second attack and how many more Japanese would have been killed if their country’s soldiers had continued to fight to the death in an effort to repel an Allied invasion.
It is worth noting that on the day before the nuclear attack on Nagasaki, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. This action suggested that the pattern of communist expansionism that had been put in evidence on the western front as Hitler’s armies collapsed and Stalin’s advanced stood to be repeated in Asia. Against this background, Washington’s decision to go nuclear was also likely designed to fire a warning shot across Moscow’s bow.
With that as background, let’s look at how the world has evolved on the nuclear front since 1945. Here, several elements stand out.
Crucially, a non-proliferation régime has been in place since 1970 that has discouraged states from going the nuclear route. This has been undergirded by a commitment by the five nuclear powers that sponsored the accord to work for a steady decrease in their nuclear arsenals. Thus, the number of nuclear warheads has decreased from a high of roughly 68,000 in 1985 to some 4,000 now, with an additional 6,000 or so having been decommissioned but not destroyed.
At the same time, there has been a modest but still disconcerting increase in the number of nuclear weapon states. In addition to the first generation nuclear powers – the US, the USSR, the PRC, the UK and France – India and Pakistan are nuclear empowered as are Israel and North Korea. All four powers are outside the non-proliferation régime. Israel does not admit to its nuclear status; North Korea wears it as a badge. Just how many nuclear weapons the second-tier nuclear states have is unclear, but their nuclear arsenals are probably sufficient to blow up a large part of the world.
Nonetheless, the nukes have remained holstered since those fateful days in August seventy years ago. Why?
One reason is that the military advantages of using nuclear weapons have been outweighed by the significant political costs associated with their deployment, as the US case has demonstrated.
Another is that nuclear deterrence has worked. The US and the USSR never launched a first-strike against one another out of a realization that they could not assume there would be no retaliation. A similar calculus has worked in the India-Pakistan equation. As for the nuclear powers of the UK, France and China, their arsenals are too modest to represent a stand-alone threat to other nuclear powers, and it is hard to see what benefit could be gained by using their nukes offensively. As for Israel, its nuclear deterrent serves as a last-line of defence against aggressive powers in the region. That said, its activation would be more than problematical in an area that Israel shares with a number of relatively small countries, all bunched up against one another. And North Korea could in no way be sure that the use of its nukes would go unpunished.
Similarly, I do not believe Iran represents a serious threat to Israel. Tehran knows Israel can retaliate. The unleashing of nuclear weapons by either side would risk doing as much damage to domestic constituencies as to foreign parts. Such considerations play out similarly across the Middle East. So, while America should continue work to defang the nuclear Iran, it should not fall prey to the hysteria against the Iran nuclear agreement generated by Benjamin Netanyahu or the cabal running for the Republican nomination. The former is attempting to instrumentalize the Iranian threat as a way of keeping an unruly governmental coalition together. The Republican cabal, on the other hand, is in the process of raising money for their primary campaigns. In the arcane political party financing system that is America’s, these vectors tend to intersect.
And what about the loose talk about the possible use of nuclear weapons that has come our way from Russia? Putin’s expansionism is based on two assumptions: first, that Russia is militarily the biggest guy on the regional block; second, that the Europeans and Americans will bend over backwards to avoid any serious military engagement with Russia. For Putin, talking up the nuclear issue is a way of reinforcing western fears of getting involved in a confrontation that could be civilisationally threatening.
How could a nuclear altercation play out? I see two possibilities. One could be a tactical nuclear attack against a target in one of NATO’s new member countries, with the assumption that the US would not respond, thus effectively pulling the plug on Western strategic solidarity. While not to be exaggerated, this threat should of course be taken seriously.
Another scenario, and potentially more serious, could arise if a nuclear attack was launched against a NATO member state under circumstances whereby the identity of the aggressor and its purpose were unclear. I will leave it to the nuclear wizards to elaborate just whether and how this might occur. We need to take into account, however, that attacks characterised by their at least superficial strategic ambiguity have become a “new normal”: so, for example, Russia’s little green men in the Crimea and its soldiers without insignia in Ukraine’s Donbass. Similarly, recent cyber actions against American targets that have emanated from China originate from sources that some say are party controlled while others contend are rogue elements. That similar ambiguity might arise in connection with nuclear weapons use should not be ruled out.
What to do about this? There is no magic wand, but there is a wand. The United States, supported by its NATO allies, needs to restate the Alliance’s preparedness to respond to a nuclear attack commeasurably and decisively. It also needs to be made clear that in the event of a purportedly ambiguous attack from the territory of a Russia or a China, the assumption will be that their authorities are complicit.
These are not comforting prospects, but I believe that they offer the best way of ensuring that nuclear weapons remain in their holster, as they now have been for seventy years.