Daryl G. Kimball
As tensions mounted in recent months between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir, massive troop deployments, cross-border shelling, and tough talk in New Delhi and Islamabad brought the two nuclear-armed rivals to the brink of war. Though leaders in both countries had professed confidence that neither side would deliberately resort to nuclear weapons, they have said in recent days that they were prepared to wage nuclear war.
The international community, including the United States, realized the danger of a deliberate or accidental nuclear exchange between the rival states and sought to remind both sides of the grave consequences of such a war. Mindful of the possibility that Pakistan might be tempted to use nuclear weapons to counter India’s overwhelming conventional forces, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that he told the leaders of both states, “I can see very little military, political, or any other kind of justification for the use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons in this day and age may serve some deterrent effect, and so be it. But to think of using them as just another weapon in what might start out as a conventional conflict in this day and age seems…to be something that no side should be contemplating.”
Despite the wisdom of Powell’ s words, the Bush administration apparently subscribes to a different set of rules for its own nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon’s recent nuclear posture review asserts that nuclear weapons “provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and large-scale conventional military force.” The review calls for contingency plans for nuclear strikes against non-nuclear weapon states or in conflicts that may begin as conventional wars. It calls for new nuclear weapons capabilities to destroy targets, such as deeply buried bunkers.
Worse still, in a speech this June President George W. Bush said that the United States will take the battle “to the enemy…and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” This implies that President Bush may be willing to use nuclear weapons not only in retaliation for a WMD attack but also to pre-empt possible WMD attacks. These attempts to reinforce the believability of U.S. threats send mixed and dangerous signals to allies, adversaries, and would-be proliferators.
Current U.S. efforts to enhance the credibility and range of options for the use of nuclear weapons blur the bright line that has separated nuclear and conventional warfare since the bombing of Nagasaki. Coming from the United States, the world’s pre-eminent military and political power, such policies only undermine nonproliferation efforts by suggesting to other states that nuclear weapons are legitimate and necessary tools that can achieve military or political objectives.
To date, no nuclear-weapon state has declared as a matter of national policy that it would respond to or pre-empt the use of chemical or biological weapons with nuclear weapons. It is one thing to threaten a “devastating response” to a biological or chemical weapons attack. It is quite another to say explicitly that the United States is prepared to counter or attempt to pre-empt such attacks by striking with nuclear weapons.
When preventive diplomacy and arms control fail to head off proliferation (and from time to time they will), military force backed with the rule of law and supported by the international community can be the option of last resort. But force should not become the sole or even the primary policy option, and in no case should nuclear weapons be employed. As a primary solution, all nations must work to strengthen, effectively implement, and universally adhere to the nonproliferation norms established by the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
If the Bush administration fails to follow through on U.S. NPT disarmament commitments, and if it renounces its longstanding pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states in good standing with the NPT, some states may see that the rule of law is breaking down and conclude that they too need nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons to ward off attack. And if the United States asserts that pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against terrorist-related WMD threats is justified, a state such as India might assert the same right and consider launching its own pre-emptive strike against Pakistan.
Rather than explore new roles for U.S. nuclear weapons—even in the name of WMD counter-proliferation—American leaders have a practical and moral responsibility to practice what they preach. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said last month, “These are not just larger weapons, they are distinctively different weapons.” Consequently, the role of nuclear weapons, until they are eliminated, must be strictly limited to deterring a nuclear attack by other nuclear-weapon states.