January 11, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Don't Say Adieu to the Nuclear Taboo


When it comes to nuclear weapons, the winners of the last sixty years have been those most concerned about losing — losing a nuclear war, certainly, but also losing the widely held belief that nuclear weapons are a class apart from conventional weapons. The few dissenters who sought, instead, to erase any distinction, “to remove the taboo from the use of these weapons,” as President Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles put it, more or less lost the argument from the start. Presidents and the general public alike have tended to err on the side of caution, and nuclear weapons have retained a sense of serious ignominy ever since.

This is an important lesson for the current occupant of the White House, who at times talks about nuclear weapons as bigger bangs and believes our strength is based on having more nuclear weapons than anyone else. From tweeting about his “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear button to insisting that we be “top of the pack“ when it comes to nuclear arsenals, President Trump has tended to trivialize nuclear strategy, sapping the issue of its seriousness and weakening the critical taboo built upon that seriousness. Caution, restraint, prudence, a fair appreciation of the destructive power of atomic weapons and the gravity that comes with their ownership — all of these are critical when dealing with the most destructive weapons ever produced.

Why is the nuclear taboo still important? Since the Eisenhower administration, presidents and national security leaders have recognized that the maintenance of the taboo itself serves a vital purpose. Nuclear weapons, they have explained, are so destructive, so dangerous, and so strategically paradoxical that their only rational use is in their non-use, as a deterrent. The taboo’s value comes in seeing that other nations also recognize as much and adopt this norm of non-use for themselves.

After all, the absence of the taboo would only invite danger. “It was evident as early as 1950,” the grandee of US diplomacy George Kennan explained, “. . . that any American policy based on the first use of this form of weaponry — any policy, that is, that envisaged its uses for purposes other than deterrence and built our entire defense establishment around it — would lead to much confusion and would have suicidal implications.”

Since the 1960s, the sentiment has been shared on the left and the right. Dean Rusk, secretary of state for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, dismissed the notion that “there can be a limited nuclear war or there can be a general nuclear war from which one side can emerge with some advantage.” It was a “phony theology,” he said. In 1982, President Reagan’s defense secretary Caspar Weinberger took to the Twitter of his day, writing an open letter to some 70 foreign and domestic media outlets. “It is the first and foremost goal of this administration to take every step to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again, for we do not believe there could be any ‘winners’ in a nuclear war,” Weinberger wrote.

But the best argument on this topic was made by the best strategist of the second half of the twentieth century, Tom Schelling (who was a colleague when I taught at the University of Maryland). In his 2005 speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize in economics, Schelling called the nuclear taboo “an asset to be treasured”:

“It is not guaranteed to survive; and some possessors or potential possessors of nuclear weapons may not share the convention. How to preserve this inhibition, what kinds of policies or activities may threaten it, how the inhibition may be broken or dissolved, and what institutional arrangements may support or weaken it, deserves serious attention.”

The speech, also excerpted as an op-ed below, is worth reading. Like Schelling, I believe any serious look at the issue reveals that we would lose much more by giving up the taboo than we would gain. As always, I welcome your feedback on this or any other topic in This Week’s Reads.

Why I Decided to Edit an Issue of TIME

Bill Gates/TIME

Optimism doesn’t sell in the news business. Except when it does. Except when billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates enlists a few of his brilliant and influential friends to write about the many ways the world is indeed getting better. In this special edition of TIME, Gates and his contributors make a full-throated case for optimism not by ignoring problems, but by facing them. “I’m not trying to downplay the work that remains,” Gates writes. “Being an optimist doesn’t mean you ignore tragedy and injustice. It means you’re inspired to look for people making progress on those fronts, and to help spread that progress more widely.”

‘Button’ It, Mr. President

Peggy Noonan/Wall Street Journal

President John F. Kennedy spoke of patience and restraint. President Ronald Reagan, of his cautious, trust-but-verify optimism in curbing the threat. “This is how American presidents have always talked about nuclear weapons and the nuclear age — blunt, direct, factual and clear,” writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. But no longer. President Trump’s recent tweeting on North Korea has made a mockery of the long-standing nuclear taboo, and with perilous consequences. “Destigmatizing the idea of nuclear use makes it more acceptable, more possible — more likely,” Noonan explains.

The Nuclear Taboo

Thomas C. Schelling/Wall Street Journal

“The most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur,” Thomas Schelling wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2005. “We have enjoyed 60 years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger.” In this op-ed, excerpted from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Schelling gives a moving history of the nuclear taboo in the United States and its adoption elsewhere in the world. His thoughtfulness and insight on this topic are a model for how everyone should approach this critical issue.

Germany’s Angela Merkel Once Seemed Invincible. Now Her Time May Be Running Out.

Griff Witte/The Washington Post

There is nothing to suggest Angela Merkel is afflicted with triskaidekaphobia, a fear of the number 13. Nothing yet, that is. But as she begins her thirteenth year as the German chancellor, there is plenty for her to worry about, writes Griff Witte in the Washington Post. Her political party had its worst result since 1949 in the election late last year. Her attempts to form a coalition government since have foundered. “Once regarded as invincible,” Witte writes, “Merkel is suddenly vulnerable in a way that has shifted the German political conversation to a topic long whispered about but rarely publicly debated before: Who should come next?”

The Trumps and Kushners May Spell the End of the Wilsonian World

Anne Applebaum/The Washington Post

This week marks the centenary of President Woodrow WIlson’s famous “Fourteen Points” speech to Congress, and it is worth reflecting on how thoroughly the twenty-eighth president’s vision was rejected at the time and how thoroughly it has been accepted since. “Ideas that were dismissed as far-fetched and even silly in 1918 have become reality,” writes Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post. Yet what challenges this reality today is not a coherent "realist" counter argument, she adds. Rather, it is a raw political cynicism, one typified by the current administration, that sees all policy as little more than a means for personal gain.

Britain Has Made Itself a Brexit Straitjacket

Philip Stephens/Financial Times

Selling his Model T to the masses in 1909, Henry Ford is rumored to have said, "You can have any color you want, as long as it's black." Selling a post-Brexit trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union in 2018, Britons are presented with a similar range of options. As Philip Stephens explains in the Financial Times, Theresa May’s many non-negotiable “red lines” mean Britain cannot model a new deal on existing EU deals with Norway, or with Switzerland, or Ukraine, or Turkey. Britons, it seems, can have any trade deal with the European Union they want, as long as it’s a version of the existing EU deals with South Korea and Canada.  

How US Intelligence Agencies Underestimated North Korea

David E. Sanger and William J. Broad/The New York Times

For all intents and purpose, the US intelligence community got it wrong. In the last few months North Korea has demonstrated nuclear and missile programs much further along in their goal of a nuclear-tipped ICBM than many in Washington believed. In this detailed report in the New York Times, David Sanger and William Broad seek to explain how the intelligence community could get so many details right but the overall timeline so wrong. “That disconnect,” the reporters explain, “. . . helps explain the confusion, mixed signals and alarm that have defined how Mr. Trump’s untested national security team has responded to the nuclear crisis.”

A Chinese Empire Reborn

Edward Wong/The New York Times

“I am the son of two empires, the United States and China,” writes Edward Wong, a reporter for the New York Times who has worked in China since 2008. Part grand travelogue, part analysis of China’s grand ambitions, this essay by Wong is a smart and revealing read. “For decades, the United States was a global beacon for those who embraced certain values — the rule of law, free speech, clean government and human rights,” Wong writes. “China’s rise is a blunt counterpoint. From 2009 onward, Chinese power in domestic and international realms has become synonymous with brute strength, bribery and browbeating — and the Communist Party’s empire is getting stronger.”

India’s Economic Woes Are Piercing Modi’s Aura of Invulnerability

Jeffrey Gettleman and Hari Kumar/The New York Times

Narendra Modi was elected prime minister of India in 2014 in no small part on the promise he could do for the whole nation what he had done for his home state of Gujarat, where he had been chief minister for more than a decade. In that time, Gujarat’s economy had grown at a much faster pace than the rest of India. Yet expanding the “Gujarat model” to the country as a whole has proved difficult, and the economic boom across India that was expected to accompany Modi’s government has fizzled out. Meanwhile, the electorate that elevated Modi to prime minister has begun to second guess its decision, as Jeffrey Gettleman and Hari Kumar explain in the New York Times.

What Trump Got Right in Foreign Policy in 2017

Andrew Exum/The Atlantic

President Trump’s foreign policy, one former prime minister recently remarked, is ABB — “anything but Barack,” a reference to Trump’s predecessor. Indeed, Donald Trump campaigned vigorously against President Obama’s foreign policy, and the Trump administration has since sought to undo much of what the previous White House accomplished. As Andrew Exum, a deputy assistant secretary of defense under Obama, writes in the Atlantic, “President Trump and some of his aides had an almost pathological obsession with the former president’s team and policies.” Setting this partisanship aside for a moment, Exum recognizes and explains four positive outcomes from Trump’s first year in office. For one, the so-called Islamic State has been rolled back in Iraq and Syria. For another, throwing US support behind Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince also has some strategic logic to it, Exum writes.


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