National Security & Defense

The Nuclear Taboo Is Weaker than You Think

A U.S. nuclear bomb test in April 1954 (Photo: Department of Defense/via Reuters)
Americans have finally stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb.

North Korea has a lot of people thinking about nuclear war these days. But there shouldn’t be any reason to worry, right? We’re told that the world saw what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and learned never to use nukes again. There is now supposedly a “nuclear taboo” that nobody, especially enlightened Westerners, would be transgressive enough to violate.

If only that were true.

According to a study published last week in International Security, a preeminent academic journal of international affairs, the strength of the nuclear taboo in America has been wildly overestimated. The study is authored by Stanford’s Scott Sagan, considered one of the nation’s leading experts on nuclear weapons, and Dartmouth’s Benjamin Valentino, who has extensively studied attitudes toward the use of force.

In considering the use of nuclear weapons, it turns out, the majority of Americans would prioritize the safety of American troops and the achievement of American war aims, even at the cost of deliberately killing millions of foreign non-combatants. This means that the public would be unlikely to restrain our president from raining “fire and fury” down on the North Korean people. It means there is one less guardrail keeping us from a nuclear exchange.

Unlike other studies, which have shown that Americans have grown less supportive of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki over time, this study simulated the Hiroshima scenario — drop the bomb or launch a costly ground invasion — in the context of a hypothetical present-day war with Iran.

“The most shocking finding of our study,” said Professor Sagan, “is that 60 percent of Americans would approve of killing 2 million Iranian civilians to prevent an invasion of Iran that might kill 20,000 U.S. soldiers.” An even larger percentage would approve of a conventional bombing attack specifically designed to kill 100,000 Iranian civilians in the hopes of pressuring Iran into surrendering.

While the American public may value the principle of non-combatant immunity in the abstract, this reveals their support to be “shallow and easily overcome by the pressures of war,” Sagan explains. And if we were living amid an actual war, rather than merely being presented with a hypothetical one, we would likely be even more willing to use nuclear force in order to win.

In her ground-breaking book The Nuclear Taboo, Nina Tannenwald claimed that “leaders and publics have come to view [the non-use of nuclear weapons] not simply as a rule of prudence but as a taboo, with an explicit normative aspect, a sense of obligation attached to it.” Non-proliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis has written that “the implication of this norm . . . is that we can’t actually use nuclear weapons.” Harvard’s Steven Pinker has even seen declining support for the use of nuclear weapons as part of a broader “humanitarian revolution.” According to Pinker, “aerial holocausts visited on foreign civilians as in Dresden, Hiroshima, and North Vietnam” became politically unacceptable by the 1990s.

But the research of Sagan, Valentino, and some others who have studied the question before them suggests otherwise. If Americans felt provoked and if U.S. troops were at risk, it seems the nuclear taboo would fall away. Winning and ending the war quickly would become more important. And once a war was provoked, the study found, many Americans feel that enemy casualties would be the enemy’s moral responsibility, not ours.

If Americans felt provoked and if U.S. troops were at risk, it seems the nuclear taboo would fall away.

All of these trends would likely intensify if North Korea were studied instead of Iran. For one, the North Korean regime has long been seen as the very picture of maniacal evil. Second, because North Korea is run as a prison state, designed to keep its citizens and all information about their experiences under the regime inside its borders, we know almost nothing about life on the ground there. As a result, sacrificing the lives of ordinary North Koreans might be easier to rationalize if it meant saving U.S. troops from a costly hypothetical invasion.

Pressure or revulsion from the American people, then, looks unlikely to be a significant factor in deterring U.S. leaders from using nuclear weapons. Republicans, to whom President Trump is more responsive, are actually more likely to approve of a nuclear first strike. Besides, the researchers speculate that in the event of a nuclear conflict, there might be a strong collective impulse to “rally around the bomb,” much like the impulse to “rally around the flag” once a conventional war has begun. Americans will want to support their country in a serious conflagration.

That leaves us with the North Koreans: Surely they, some might argue, would not be crazy enough to present us with a nuclear dilemma, knowing we could destroy their entire country. There is some truth to this: Kim Jong-un, though monstrous and paranoid, is reportedly a rational leader.

But Kim does not have to be mentally insane to initiate a nuclear confrontation. As Professor Sagan has argued for years, “professional military organizations — because of common biases, inflexible routines, and parochial interests — display organizational behaviors that are likely to lead to deterrence failures and deliberate or accidental war.” This danger persists even in developed nations. But in North Korea, the state will almost certainly lack the civilian controls necessary to limit the risk.

First, it is a mistake to assume that North Korean policy is driven by the national interest. The welfare of the North Korean people is simply not the government’s primary concern. On the contrary, powerful military officials’ own narrow interests drive state policy. These interests are divergent. But for some officials, conflict, brinkmanship, and escalation may be advantageous, leading to increased budgets (from which to steal as well as spend), access to Kim Jong-un, and influence over policy.

The North Korean leadership is fundamentally “inward-looking,” focused on ensuring domestic tranquility and protecting its own jobs and lives, rather than on national security. Kim Jong-un is not immune to this mindset, either. Though he gets to decide whom to kill, he also has to worry constantly about military coups, making sure nobody else gets too powerful or too close.

Such insecurity also leads tyrants to promote key officials, especially in the military, based on their loyalty or lack of ambition, not their competence. In fact, particularly effective military leaders are often deemed threatening and dismissed or killed. Kim Jong-un seems to have fallen into this pattern. He has fired his spy and state-security chiefs, killed his defense minister, and executed at least 340 others during his reign, according to South Korean reports. This means that North Korean defense policy is probably being designed and implemented by second-rate men who desperately seek to avoid disappointing Kim.

In short, we cannot expect a perfectly rational performance from North Korean leaders in the event of a nuclear confrontation. Led astray by private interests, they may well enter into an escalation scenario that is not ultimately in their nation’s interest. In any conflict, Kim would fear for the internal safety of his regime first and foremost. Relying on incomplete information given to him by sycophants, and receiving advice from and enacting the plans of incompetents, Kim could accidentally bait the U.S. into a first strike, or convince himself that he must strike first. In either case, he could easily make the “irrational” decision to use nuclear weapons.

If it has done nothing else, the Trump presidency has shocked us into recognizing the weakness of the guardrails bounding our political system. To avoid a nuclear confrontation with a state like North Korea, America will need every last guardrail and norm, every last bit of reason and level-headedness that it can find. At home and abroad, nuclear taboos alone will not keep us safe.


Into the Abyss: A Scenario for the Next Korean War

North Korea’s Nukes Are Probably Here to Stay

West Can Neither Live with nor Take Out North Korean Nukes


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