Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

How Strong Is the Nuclear Taboo Today?

November 8, 2018

How Strong Is the Nuclear Taboo Today? written by Nina Tannenwald appears in The Washington Quarterly’s Fall 2018 volume.

Since August 1945, when the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in the closing days of WWII, no nation has employed nuclear weapons during war. Many people at the time fully expected that nuclear weapons would be used again after 1945. Contrary to these early expectations, a 73-year tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons has arisen. This non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945 is the single most important feature of the nuclear age. A nuclear “taboo”—a normative inhibition against the first use of nuclear weapons—has emerged. It stems from a powerful sense of revulsion associated with such destructive weapons. Since its rise during the Cold War, the nuclear taboo has been embraced by the United Nations and by leaders and publics around the world as a norm of international politics.

Today, however, for the first time since the tensest days of the Cold War, the prospect that an American president might actually contemplate using nuclear weapons against an adversary has become thinkable. President Donald Trump’s threats in August 2017 to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea, in response to that country’s provocations, alarmed leaders and citizens around the world. While the taboo remains a widely-shared norm of the international community, it is under pressure from both the Trump administration and other nuclear-armed governments. Today, a new nuclear era is emerging—one of multiple nuclear powers, intersecting rivalries, increased regional tensions in Europe and Asia, and new technological arms races in both nuclear and non-nuclear systems.

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