The Nuclear Taboo

Interview with Nina Tannenwald

Nina Tannenwald is an Associate Research Professor at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. She holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University, and has taught and lectured in a wide range of institutions on international relations, international security, weapons of mass destruction, international institutions, law and organization, human rights and ethical issues in the use of force. Her book, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge University Press, 2007), won the 2009 Lepgold Prize for best book in international relations.

SGI Quarterly: In your book, you write of a "nuclear taboo." Can you explain what is meant by that?

Nina Tannenwald: I argue that a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons has developed since 1945. The taboo is a normative prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons. It is associated with a sense of moral opprobrium regarding such weapons. This taboo has helped restrain the resort to the use of nuclear weapons. I focus primarily on the United States, but I do argue that this taboo has now become more widespread. The book focuses on how the taboo arose and how it influenced US leaders when they were thinking about using nuclear weapons during crises during the Cold War, but I also look at how it has influenced international politics more broadly. The central question is why nuclear weapons were not used during the Cold War and why they haven't been used since 1945. The conventional argument is deterrence--that fear of nuclear reprisal kept states from using these weapons. Deterrence is an important part of the explanation, but it is insufficient. The taboo helps explain why nuclear weapons haven't been used as weapons even in cases where deterrence wasn't operating.

SGIQ: How did the taboo develop?

NT: I identify three primary factors: First is a global grassroots antinuclear weapons movement which made it impossible to think about nuclear weapons as just another weapon; the second element was antinuclear politics at the United Nations; and a third element was strategic pressures and the risks of escalation. I might add a fourth element, which is the conscience of individual leaders who really felt that nuclear weapons were morally repugnant and that we had to do something to delegitimize them. So, when you look at how this taboo arose--the change from 1945, when it was assumed that nuclear weapons would be used in war like any other weapons, to today, when nuclear weapons use by states is almost unthinkable--it reflects both morality and self-interest. That is, you have a convergence of realist interest and the moral interest--the sense that these are unacceptable, morally abhorrent weapons--and that creates a fairly large constituency, perhaps larger than we have had for a long time, for actually moving toward abolition.

SGIQ: The Nuclear Taboo is designed to speak to International Relations specialists, a field where a certain style of "realism" has long prevailed. Have you seen a shift in that field over the years?

NT: Oh absolutely: even the hard-core realpolitik people, the realists, talk about a taboo now. They don't necessarily buy the whole argument I make, but it is on the table and they have to deal with it. Even the realists now take the taboo into account.

Young people marching for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the UK, 1958 [© CND Archives]

SGIQ: Could you speak more about grassroots opposition to nuclear weapons?

NT: When you look at not only the history of nuclear weapons but of other weapons as well--chemical weapons, land mines, cluster bombs--most of this kind of arms control has come from civil society movements and the pressure they exert. The global antinuclear movement, starting in the 1950s, was a disarmament movement. In fact, however, there was no disarmament to speak of until the end of the Cold War, and in that sense they weren't successful. But the antinuclear movement made it impossible to think of nuclear weapons as just another weapon, and that is its single most important contribution to nuclear history. This pattern is not unique to nuclear weapons but evident in other cases where weapons have been stigmatized. Citizens' movements have not always been successful in the short run, but over time these movements have had significant successes in getting arms control achieved and getting states to change their policies in regard to various kinds of weapons. This is very important, and it is echoed by the histories of other weapons as well.

SGIQ: Is there continuity between a taboo on use and a prohibition on all aspects of production, possession, deployment and so on?

NT: I see a progression, and many antinuclear groups do see the ultimate goal as a legally binding prohibition. At present, there is no specific legal ban on the use of nuclear weapons (though there are some legal constraints). We already have norms against the possession and production of nuclear weapons that apply to most of the world. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is sometimes criticized as codifying the inequalities between the nuclear "haves" and "have-nots," in fact includes a clear legal obligation for the nuclear-weapon states to negotiate toward full disarmament. It thus enshrines a norm of non-possession for everyone, including the nuclear powers. So these norms already exist. The problem is that, like membership in the NPT, they aren't universal yet, nor have adequate steps been taken to implement them.

For both realist and normative reasons, the utility of nuclear weapons has been circumscribed. Now, even the defenders of nuclear deterrence argue that this is limited to deterring others from using nuclear weapons. I think it has become easier to move to things like, for example, a declared no-first use policy, then from a declared no-first use policy to a legal prohibition on use. I think this is the likely trajectory of incremental progress. It is not going to happen tomorrow, however.

SGIQ: What role do you see for religions and spiritual traditions in promoting nuclear abolition?

NT: I think there is a very important role for religions in the antinuclear weapons argument. There is room to bring religion more centrally into our thinking about nuclear weapons. For example, the Catholic bishops were quite influential in the 1980s when they came out with their encyclical that use of nuclear weapons was immoral and that deterrence was only acceptable as a temporary point on the road ultimately to abolition. This is possibly an area where we could engage Iran, as Iranian leaders have said that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic, and so far I know of no leaders of any other country who have said that nuclear weapons are either un-Christian or un-Jewish. It seems to me that this offers an opening for a dialogue on religious conceptions and how they might inform our policy regarding nuclear weapons.