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Nuclear Responsibilities in a Deterrence Driven World

Although nuclear weapons have been in existence for more than 70 years, their proliferation to multiple states has been significantly constrained by treaties and international organisations. Additionally, promotion of the nuclear non-use norm, resulting from the nuclear taboo, has further reduced the threat of nuclear use. 

Any crisis involving a nuclear weapon state leads to an inevitable discussion about the use of nuclear weapons; whether it was the Kargil war in the 1990s or the current Ukraine crisis. However, the long duration of nuclear non-use, lasting almost a century, has led to reduced nuclear anxiety about their potential use. The fear of a ‘nuclear weapon’ is not the same as it was during the Cold War, notwithstanding the recent uncalled-for sabre rattling by the Russian President or the nuclear modernisation undertaken by most Nuclear Weapon States (NWS). Nuclear threat levels have not risen to what was experienced during the Cold War period, when large-scale nuclear exercises and lessons on protecting oneself from a nuclear attack amongst citizens were the norm.

While nuclear anxiety may have reduced, the current international debate about the position of the United States and NATO vis-a-vis the Russian President’s statement on the possible use of nuclear weapons has, once again, brought the focus of the world on ‘nuclear responsibility’. Measured statements from the ‘West’ have found favour with strategists and analysts around the world. But what makes states choose nuclear responsibility in crises? How does this impact their deterrence requirements? And what influence does it have on nuclear anxiety? 

The Nuclear Responsibilities (NR) framework developed by BASIC and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham helps answer some of the questions by highlighting the importance of responsibility while battling security concerns. Discussions under the Nuclear Responsibilities Framework suggest that it has been understood primarily as a part of each government’s sovereign responsibility towards its own people. 

Applying this disposition to the Self-Other paradigm, to further inform our understanding of inter-group interactions, we could infer that the concept of nuclear responsibility is primarily driven by notions of the ‘self’. 

While deterrence defines how nuclear weapon states interact with each ‘other’, their underlying responsibility in actions determine how states view themselves. An example could be India’s restrained response after the Mumbai attacks in 2008. By not retaliating conventionally or making nuclear threats, India behaved responsibly. It received unprecedented international cooperation from around the world but the decision did not seem to emanate keeping in mind the perception of others; rather it seemed to be based on India’s notion of itself.

This comes across as a key consequence of being responsible; that a state might appear weak with the credibility of its deterrent in question. This fallout then, while not real and based almost entirely on perception, is significant as the perception of the ‘other’ impacts how the state sees itself.

As stated earlier, the nuclear non-use norm has been prevalent since 1945. While nuclear anxiety may have waxed and waned as per the geo-political environment of the day, the nuclear taboo and non-use have continued to be prevalent despite all odds and questions on credibility, as the consequences for crossing the nuclear Rubicon remain impossible to predict with accuracy to this day.

Responsibility then becomes all encompassing where just as nuclear weapons are a state responsibility, maintaining a credible deterrent capability is also the responsibility of the state. In balancing deterrence demands vis-a-vis state actions, states sometimes reach a point of considering nuclear use. A case in point being US President George W. Bush’s attempt to develop a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator as part of a ‘Prompt Global Strike’ policy and intention to develop a new Nuclear Triad that mixed conventional with nuclear forces as well as deploying missile defences as a separate leg. However, this policy of merging conventional with nuclear forces received sharp criticism, as it would blur the distinction between a conventional and nuclear strike. It was argued that the inability of a US adversary to distinguish between the two might increase the chances of nuclear preemption, as they might seek to mitigate their potential losses from an assumed US nuclear ‘first-strike’.

Another significant issue with nuclear weapons is that the positive decisions and actions towards nuclear responsibility do not receive as much attention. Questions are consistently raised about India’s No First Use (NFU) policy – is it credible? Will it stand the test of time? Will perspectives change during a crisis? But the application of NFU, which was brought into the doctrine from India’s understanding of its ‘self’, is rarely given the same space in the literature. 

However, lack of fear and anxiety about the use of nuclear weapons does not imply that frequent and trivial ‘loose talk’ on nuclear weapons use should be promoted or encouraged in any manner. These repeated slips, while pertinent, have probably contributed to a reduction in nuclear anxiety as state actors and their populations may have come to view these slips as a part of the norm. The most recent example being President Putin’s usage of nuclear threats during the crisis in Ukraine. The destruction caused by nuclear weapons would be nothing short of catastrophic and states need to keep acknowledging this reality as a part of their nuclear responsibilities, while pursuing their deterrence needs. 

Historically, nuclear weapon states have been responsible in their actions, especially during crises. After the devastating impact observed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been multiple close calls but states have always chosen to respond to crises in a responsible manner; be it the 1962 Cuban missile crisis or the 1983 Able Archer. While both crises almost triggered a nuclear war, the final decision by state leaders has reflected a deeper understanding of responsibility or responsible deterrence at a time when the ‘Nuclear Responsibilities’ framework developed by BASIC and ICCS did not exist. An example of this is US President Kennedy’s restrained response that would not accept missiles in the US neighbourhood, but would also ensure that impulsive decisions were not taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Choosing responsibility during a crisis is not an easy task for a state leader. An understanding of empathy that can reduce misunderstandings while addressing deterrence concerns is of utmost importance. In moments of crisis, a one-sided narrative may lead to framed normative discussions and leaders need to look at the bigger picture, beyond their state structures. When Kennedy took the decision to engage in back channel talks during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was thinking for all of humanity, not just the US state and its people. The responsibility was not just towards the state ‘self’, but humanity as a whole. Leading on from the Nuclear Responsibilities Framework, which looks to reduce distrust and build trust, and calls for states to have a reframed outlook on how to think, talk and write about nuclear weapons, there is a need to bring in empathy within state interactions. Empathy aids in understanding the needs, intentions and perspectives of the ‘other’ and engaging with other states would be a first step in this direction. 

There are genuine issues within multilateralism today. More states are involved in the decision making processes as opposed to one or two power centres. Adding to this is the complex relationship between states where economic dependency no longer determines political cohesiveness across all issues. States of many hues work together while being equally wary of each other. Because building empathy and removing distrust is harder in such an environment, it is equally significant to undertake such an exercise. 

Using Kennedy’s vision, states need to engage in responsible deterrence which in turn would involve fulfilling deterrence needs by addressing the ‘other’ while also widening the framework of the ‘self’ to embrace the other. Re-affirming the significance of nuclear weapons and reducing loose talk on nuclear use to ensure their continued non-use along with engaging in understanding the needs of the ‘other’ while pursuing deterrence requirements would help achieve ‘responsible deterrence’ for states. 

Multiple power centres might make responsible deterrence a utopian dream. But by looking beyond the self-other paradigm and by remembering their responsibility towards wider humanity, states could possibly achieve responsible deterrence.


artworks 000099707675 bhbxq1 t500x500This article is co-published with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. 

Dr Kanica Rakhra is currently working as a consultant with a New Delhi based think tank, RIS.

Views expressed belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC.


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