Humanitarian Consequences

by Michael Krepon

Yes, every kind of weapon, if used against noncombatants, can violate the humanitarian laws of warfare. But nuclear detonations add a whole new scale to this problem. A single mushroom cloud, except under highly particular circumstances, will violate the humanitarian laws of warfare. And, if a single detonation triggers more detonations and all Hell breaks loose, even singular use cannot be justified. So, what are we to do with the approximately 16,000 nuclear weapons that currently exist?

The endgame of abolition provides only a placeholder answer to this question. Abolition is a long way off, and the pursuit of abolition is fundamentally a function of international and major-power relations. Only enlightened leadership and political accommodation allows for a process of nuclear subtraction to be realized.

We cannot predict when political conditions among states that possess the Bomb will be suitable to reach the point where they would be willing to divest their stockpiles completely. In the meantime, there is hard work to be done to achieve grudging reductions. Nuclear enclaves, regardless of nationality, hold tightly to weapons whose use will likely have catastrophic consequences. Nonetheless, these enclaves confer upon nuclear weapons powers of leverage that are illusory before detonations and irretrievable afterwards.

Demands for leaders in states with nuclear stockpiles to “find the political will” to reduce their arsenals aren’t much help, either. If these leaders have serious adversaries, they will need more than political will; they also need adversaries willing to resolve disputes and relieve anxieties.

What to do in the meantime? Non-nuclear-weapon states do not have the leverage to compel states possessing nuclear weapons to resolve their disputes; they don’t even have the leverage to get them to talk to one another about nuclear risk and arms reduction. Other kinds of suasion require care and foresight. For example, seeking leverage on weapon-possessing states by holding the Non-Proliferation Treaty hostage is unwise. These gambits are far more likely to weaken, rather than strengthen, the NPT. Holding the Treaty hostage to apolitical and unachievable goals will increase, not decrease nuclear dangers.

Again, what to do? Very ambitious, long-term goals only become possible by the avoidance of terrible setbacks as well as the steady accretion of positive steps. Since the cataclysm of nuclear warfare begins with the first detonation, prospects for avoiding a humanitarian disaster and the successful pursuit of abolition hinge on avoiding another detonation. Every year without a nuclear test or a battlefield detonation advances the fundamental principle for all progress in nuclear threat and arsenal reduction — that nuclear weapons do not have military utility.

If these norms are broken, damages will be compounded if norm breaking is perceived as offering net gains. Only North Korea has carried out nuclear detonations underground since 1998. This suggests that all states but one understand that the costs of another detonation carry undefined but sufficient penalties that exceed potential gains. If North Korea carries out another test, its neighbors, especially China, and the United States are obliged to do better than before in clarifying penalties. Simply reaffirming North Korea’s outlier status is necessary, but insufficient.

The dictum of penalties outweighing perceived benefits applies far more for battlefield use. If nuclear escalation cannot be controlled, then this penalty will be imposed quickly, with global humanitarian consequences. It is deeply unwise, however, to proceed on the basis that nuclear escalation is inescapable after singular or very limited use.

If the nuclear norm of non-battlefield use has been broken in a singular or very limited way, then the only way this norm can be re-established — and even strengthened — is for the user to be declared the looser and to suffer grave diplomatic and economic consequences. (Another way is for the user to lose by means of conventional firepower, but this entails grave escalatory risks.)

In macro terms, the continued diminishment of the utility of nuclear weapons – even as, and especially when states modernize their strategic forces – requires no nuclear detonations at test sites and on battlefields. This, in turn, suggests the centrality of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty for every worthwhile pathway to reduce nuclear risks and arsenals. It also suggests that the Obama administration’s renewed interest in the CTBT — in the form of teeing up another ratification vote for its successor – falls short of the mark.