Time to Renew the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle
William Potter and Lewis Dunn | ARTICLE
The following text is an excerpt from the article published in Vol. 50: March 2020 of Arms Control Today.
The risk of use of nuclear weapons among the great powers is greater today than since the height of the Cold War. Growing political-military competition has increased the possibility of a U.S.- Russian or U.S.-Chinese military conflict. Any such conflict would carry with it the danger of escalation across the nuclear threshold, most probably driven by misinterpretation and miscalculation.
Concerns about this risk have focused renewed attention among officials, experts, and civil society on the 1985 statement by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Whether or not nuclear-weapon states should endorse what came to be known as the Reagan-Gorbachev Principle, or make some other equally compelling commitment to avoiding use of nuclear weapons, almost certainly will be part of the debate at the upcoming 2020 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.
Since the United States dropped two atomic bombs to end World War II in 1945, the subsequent nonuse of nuclear weapons is one of the more perplexing, if positive, phenomena of the past 75 years. This tradition, or what some prefer to consider to be a taboo or norm, has persisted despite the existence of a number of unfavorable conditions, from the demonstrated technical effectiveness of the weapon to the centrality of nuclear weapons in the deterrence strategies, military doctrines, and operational war plans of a growing number of states. Although the strength and vitality of the tradition of nuclear nonuse has fluctuated over time, the very fact of decade after decade of nonuse has steadily strengthened the norm.[…]
This recognition of the risks of nuclear use was sustained in the 1960s and 1970s across both Republican and Democratic administrations, but it appeared to be in jeopardy when Reagan arrived in the White House in 1981. Some of his early comments about the potential for limiting the escalation of a war involving tactical nuclear weapons prompted Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to declare in October 1981 that “it is dangerous madness to try to defeat each other in the arms race and to count on victory in nuclear war.” Brezhnev added that “only he who has decided to commit suicide can start a nuclear war in the hope of emerging a victor.”
Source: Arms Control Today