Taboo or tradition? The non-use of nuclear weapons in world politics

  • Review of International Studies, October 2010, Cambridge University Press
  • DOI: 10.1017/s0260210510001336

Taboo or tradition? The non-use of nuclear weapons in world politics

Why is it important?

The non-use of nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 has emerged as a major puzzle in international politics. Traditional International Relations scholarship views this largely as a function of the deterrent relationship that emerged between the nuclear powers, especially during the Cold War era. The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used against non-nuclear states, despite temptations to use them, remains a challenge to the deterrence-only explanation. More normatively oriented scholars have argued that a taboo has emerged against the non-use of nuclear weapons. Nina Tannenwald's book, The Nuclear Taboo is the most comprehensive study on this subject which relies on constructivist logic of inter-subjective taboo-like prohibition in accounting for the puzzle. While I see much merit in Tannenwald's empirical case studies, it is far-fetched to call the non-use largely a function of a taboo-like prohibition. For, taboos by their very nature forbid discussions of their breaking, whereas nuclear states have national military strategies that call for nuclear use under certain circumstances. They have also in many crises situations considered the use of nuclear weapons. I have argued in my book, The Tradition of Non-use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford University Press, 2009), that a more modest tradition can be given partial credit for the absence of nuclear attacks on non-nuclear states. The tradition emerged because of a realisation of the horrendous effects of nuclear attack (a material fact) which generated reputation costs for a potential user. These reputation costs in turn generated self-deterrence which has helped to create a tradition which is partially restraining nuclear states from using their weapons for anything other than existential deterrence. Unlike Tannenwald, I contend that the tradition is not a strict taboo and hence it can be altered if material and political circumstances compel nuclear states to do so. The recent policy changes that have taken place in nuclear powers such as the US, Russia, UK, and France do not augur well for the tradition as the conditions for atomic use have been expanded to include prevention, pre-emption and other non-proliferation objectives involving rogue states and terrorist groups.

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