Nuclear weapons occupy a peculiar position in the arsenals of modern nation-states – that is, the limited number of countries that actually have the capacity to develop, maintain and deliver them. On the one hand, they are one of the deadliest, most destructive, and least discriminating weapons at humanity’s disposal. On the other hand, they are the only respectable and legitimate weapon of mass destruction that countries openly admit to having and being able to use – as opposed to, say, chemical or bacteriological weapons. This duality impacts the ways in which people, organizations, and governments perceive nuclear weapons. Depending on the viewpoint, one may call them a powerful deterrent that lessens the possibility of conflicts or a weapon so tabooed that its use is extremely unlikely and its deterrence potential modest. This begs the legitimate question of whether having nuclear weapons prevents conventional conflict and international interventions in the sovereign state’s internal affairs. Evidence suggests that, while a nuclear arsenal does not entirely prevent conventional conflicts, it reduces their possibility significantly, and the absence of nuclear weapons puts a nation at a much greater risk of foreign intervention and aggression.
One crucial concept for the understanding of this discussion is that of nuclear deterrence. The premise of this concept is fairly simple: as long as any actor contemplates military aggression, even limited to conventional means, against a nuclear-capable state, nuclear weapons always remain a factor to consider. The mere possibility of retaliation with these should act as a strong deterrent due to the extreme implications it entails. Nuclear weapons achieve this status of a perfect deterrent due to the confirmation of several factors. The first is the immense destructive potential, which, on a per-pound basis, superseded any weapon developed so far by orders of magnitude. The second is the relatively short reaction time, especially after the development of efficient intercontinental ballistic missiles, ensuring the possibility of swift retaliation in case of a necessity. Due to these factors, the proponents of deterrence during the Cold War argued that the best national defense strategy is to have “tens of thousands of missiles poised for launch on a moment’s notice” (Gaddis 197). Theoretically, the threat of mass nuclear retaliation should serve as a certain guarantee against foreign aggression.
The opposite perspective on the matter is based on the concept of nuclear taboo. This approach argues that nuclear weapons have a limited value as a deterrent precisely because of how devastatingly powerful they are. A set of decisions from the Korean War onward has ensured that no nuclear weapons have been in more than seven decades since the end of the Second World War. Moreover, the possibility of mutual nuclear annihilation during the Cold War made people and governments acutely aware of the threat and more determined to prevent its realization. To use the words of Nina Tannenwald, who authored the concept of nuclear taboo, the world’s nations and politicians have developed “a normative inhibition against the first use of nuclear weapons” due to the unpredictable implications of such a step (89). The longer this inhibition persists, the more powerful it becomes through the sheer force of precedent and the less likely the use of nuclear weapons. The nuclear threshold so high leaves an opportunity for waging conventional wars even against nuclear-capable states without risking the escalation to the actual use of weapons of mass destruction.
Apart from contrasting these two theoretical perspectives, this paper will evaluate several moderating factors that may also increase or decrease the likelihood of conventional conflicts and international interventions. The first is the actual capability to which a given nation is able to use nuclear weapons even if it technically has them. This factor is important because the nations that merely begin forming nuclear arsenals and have few effective means to deliver nuclear weapons to their targets will likely find their deterring value fairly limited. The second moderating factor, and a fairly obvious one at that, is the perceived conventional military strength of the country. In case if a targeted nation is nuclear-capable but presumed to have limited military capabilities otherwise, it may increase the likelihood of military aggression even despite its possession of weapons of mass destruction. Finally, the third factor is the stakes in the conflict, as a localized war with limited objectives should be less likely to trigger the use of nuclear weapons. To test these assumptions, it is necessary to analyze the cases of conventional wars or international interventions involving nuclear-capable states.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the US Nuclear Monopoly
The United States was the first country in the world to acquire nuclear weapons and the first and only to use them so far. This first use of atomic bombs occurred during the last months of the Second World War. American Air Force dropped two such devices on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively. While both cities contained legitimate military targets, they were densely populated urban areas, and civilian casualties of up to 120,000 ensued (Blackett 357). Politicians, military leaders, scientists, and journalists have argued the moral and practical implications of the act ever since. The proponents of using nuclear weapons insist that they helped to ensure Japanese surrender and, thus, spared both countries further casualties. The opponents argue that the sheer power of the weapons used, as well as the long-term implications of radiation, made their use indiscriminate and inhumane. Regardless of these considerations, there is no arguing that the end of the Second World War marked the dawn of nuclear warfare and the beginning of the brief nuclear monopoly of the United States.
One aspect of this case that begs consideration from the perspective of this paper is that, from a purely practical perspective, nuclear weapons were not yet separated from conventional ones. For all intents and purposes, the American military used them as yet another addition to the country’s arsenal. The use of atomic bombs did not differ from bombing raids with conventional munitions in terms of immediate military impact because both resulted in the vast loss of lives and property (Rhodes 17). Similarly, no meaningful difference is to be observed in the indiscriminate nature of their use. The political and military leadership of the Allied powers had already made a principal ethical decision “to use terror bombing against civilian populations” as early as 1943 (Rhodes 17). From this perspective, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was merely a consistent continuation of the strategy enacted two years ago with new technical means. For practical military intents and purposes, nuclear weapons were viewed and used as conventional ones. Thus, the period of American nuclear monopoly demonstrates no evidence of the development of nuclear taboo.
Apart from the purely military purpose of the bombings, though, American leadership put an explicit and heavy emphasis on the political purpose of the new weapons. As the Second World War drew to its end, the relations between the allies comprising the anti-Hitler coalition became tenser. The conflicting visions of the post-war world entertained by the United States and Great Britain on one side and the Soviet Union on the other side made future conflicts not only possible but probable. With this in mind, the new weapons with extraordinary destructive potential and specifically suited for delivery by strategic aviation allowed negating of Soviet superiority in conventional armed arsenals. The threat that the atomic bombs and strategic aviation presented to industrial and population centers deep within the Soviet Union to deter any hostile action against the United States. A contemporary observer noted that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not so much the last act of the Second World War but “the first act of the cold… war with Russia” (Blackett 358). Hence, the idea of nuclear deterrence preventing conventional war emerged as early as the first use of nuclear weapons.
During the years of American nuclear monopoly from 1945-1949, no Soviet aggression occurred despite the considerable advantage in conventional weaponry. It is up to debate whether it was due to American nuclear deterrence or the fact that the heavy Soviet losses in the Second World War discouraged it from aggressive behavior. Even without nuclear weapons, the United States was one of the most militarily powerful nations in the world, so it is highly unlikely that the Soviet Union would seek a confrontation with it. In any case, American leadership in 1945-1949 demonstrated little hesitation in using nuclear weapons for military and political purposes alike and also assigned them an explicit role of a deterrent. Considering this, the period of American nuclear monopoly supports the notion that having nuclear weapons decreases the likelihood of war, especially if the nation in possession of said weapons is also powerful in conventional terms.
The Korean War of 1950-1953 was the first case of a direct conventional attack against the forces of nuclear power and, as such, deserves due consideration. After the end of the Second World War, Soviet and American forces occupied Korea jointly, with the demarcation line running along the 38the parallel, with each side installing friendly regimes in their respective occupation zones. Both Southern and Northern regimes sought to unify the country with the use of force, but only North Korea managed to get approval from its superpower ally (Gaddis 41-43). North Korean troops attacked in the summer of 1950, quickly overcame the resistance of South Korean and American forces and pushed toward the southernmost edge of the peninsula. South Korea was of little strategic value in itself, but the aggression was immensely impactful in the American public imagination and elicited a vigorous response (Masuda 60-63). General MacArthur’s amphibious landing in Inchon severed North Korean communication lines and delivered a fatal blow to the invading armies. By the fall of 1950, the UN forces led by the United States invaded North Korea and pushed toward the Chinese border.
What began as a small conflict between two regimes in Southeast Asia has already involved a coalition led by a nuclear superpower, but yet another round of escalation was about to happen. In November, the Chinese army crossed the border, launched a full-scale offensive against the overextended UN forces, and drove them back, inflicting heavy casualties and suffering even greater ones (Corrado 1). While China itself had no nuclear weapons at the moment and would not until 1960, its engagement signaled that the communist bloc was willing to escalate the war. Thus, when General MacArthur insisted on using nuclear weapons against the new threat, President Truman was reasonably wary. The Soviet Union – a nuclear power since 1949 – could not have as many atomic bombs as the 369 in American arsenals but could deliver at least some to targets in Korea and Japan if the conflict escalated further (Gaddis 58). Faced with the possibility of a nuclear exchange, Truman showed restraint, and the war continued along conventional lines until the armistice was signed in 1953.
In the fall of 1950, China deliberately entered an ongoing conflict to attack the forces of a nuclear power that had demonstrated the willingness to use nuclear weapons several years prior. When North Korea crossed the 38th parallel, it could think that the United States would accept the fait accompli and refrain from involvement (Gaddis 41). In the face of ongoing American involvement, China could have no such illusions yet decided to launch an energetic offensive nonetheless (Corrado 2). This fact suggests that nuclear containment did not suffice to protect the United States and its forces in Korea against a foreign attack, even by a non-nuclear power. The fact that the United States was also superior in terms of conventional military might not prevent Chinese involvement either. Chinese war planners, as well as their Soviet colleagues, must have made a risky yet ultimately right bet that the United States’ nuclear threshold was high enough to allow such an escalation. Thus, the case of the Korean War seems to suggest that nuclear weapons do not necessarily prevent aggression even when they come together with conventional military superiority.
However, one should also consider the stakes in the conflict as a moderating factor. Korean War was important for the American public imagination as the first true test of strength in the Cold War and the first military challenge from the Communist bloc (Masuda 60-63). Consequently, the decision to stand and fight was politically important to demonstrate American dedication to protecting and enforcing the post-war world order as well as maintaining its newly acquired superpower status and not withdrawing from global responsibility. At the same time, the purely strategic importance of Korea was limited, as the American strategy focused on holding “island strongpoints like Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines” rather than positions on the Asian mainland (Gaddis 41). Hence, while the Korean War could be a “nerve-racking test of wills with the potential to escalate into a head-on, superpower collision,” it still remained a limited conflict over a region of modest strategic importance (Corrado 2). Therefore, the case demonstrates that nuclear deterrence does not necessarily prevent conventional aggression if the potential conflict is perceived as a low-stakes limited war that does not threaten the nuclear powers’ vital interests.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis is often perceived as the point when the United States and the Soviet Union came closest to a nuclear exchange, and for a good reason too. In 1962, Soviet leader Khrushchev ordered to deploy of medium- and intermediate-range nuclear missile on Cuba – partially to defend the Cuban revolution and partially to respond to the deployment of American medium-range missiles in Turkey (Gaddis 76). After American intelligence identified the Soviet missile positions on the island, the relations between the two countries deteriorated quickly and sharply. The deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba increased the number of warheads that could be simultaneously launched against the USA, and intermediate-range missiles were particularly problematic because, unlike the transcontinental missiles of the time, they required little preparation before launch (Gaddis 77). After a series of intense negotiations, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy’s guarantees of no further action against Cuba and the withdrawal of American intermediate-range missiles from Turkey (Gaddis 78). Thus, the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers managed to avert the conflict.
The main conclusion that the analysis of the Cuban missile crisis suggests is that nuclear weapons can, indeed, serve as a deterring factor and prevent conventional war. Both the First and Second World Wars began from diplomatic crises of far lesser significance and had less immediate bearing for the involved nations’ security than the possibility of destruction for entire cities. However, unlike the death of Franz Ferdinand during Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba did not develop into an all-out military conflict. The sheer destructiveness of nuclear weapons, now possessed by both sides, decreases the possibility of open confrontations fully in line with the deterrence theory. Admittedly, it would be too much to agree with John Gaddis’ opinion that a nuclear arsenal guaranteed that “war could no longer be an instrument of statecraft,” even between nuclear powers, as the later cases in this paper will show (81). Still, the doctrine of deterrence in the form of mutually assured destruction proved sufficient to ensure cooperation instead of conflict in this case.
At the same time, one should pay attention to why Soviet leadership decided to initiate the crisis in the first place. While, in 1960, the Soviet Union was a nuclear power for already more than a decade, its nuclear arsenal counted “between eight and seventeen times” fewer warheads than that of the United States (Gaddis 78). Soviet leadership sought to compensate for American superiority in terms of strategic aviation by putting an emphasis on intercontinental ballistic missiles, which were meant to become the bulwark of Soviet nuclear containment. The diplomatic impact of the Soviet possession of these new weapons was quite strong until American aerial reconnaissance confirmed that there was no significant “missile gap” between the two nations and that the Soviet Union only had a few operational missile sites (Gaddis 74-75). The American reveal of this lack of nuclear parity was one of the factors that prompted Khrushchev to deploy missiles in Cuba (Gaddis 75). Thus, the Cuban missile crisis also shows that the limited capability to deliver nuclear warheads and the perceived vulnerability it brings may serve as a catalyst for conflict and war.
The Yom Kippur War
The Yom Kippur War between Israel on one side and mainly Egypt and Syria on the other side was one of the largest conventional wars of the post-war period. In October of 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a joint assault against the Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, respectively. First strikes were successful for Egyptians and Syrians on both fronts, but the advance stalled for military and logistical reasons. After the initial defeats, the Israeli forces were able to stall the enemy’s advance and, following sufficient concentration of forces, defeat the opposing forces in the Golan Heights and penetrate within Syria proper (Herzog ch. 10). In the Sinai theater, an Israeli counterattack allowed to cross the Suez Canal, make some territorial gains west of it, and threaten the Egyptian 3rd army with an encirclement, while the Egyptians still held their newly captured positions in the northern sector (Herzog ch. 15-16). These successes forced the Arab coalition to accept a ceasefire without achieving their goals to fully reverse the results of the 1967 war.
The example of the Yom Kippur War seems to suggest that the possession of nuclear weapons does not guarantee the country from a conventional attack. Although Israel is famously secretive about its weapons of mass destruction, there is an almost universal agreement that, by 1973, it had nuclear weapons. Some sources also claim, although debatably, that, during the military crisis of the first days of the war, Israel contemplated their use (Isaac 237). However, just like the Soviet Union in the Korean War and during the Cuban missile crisis, Israel was still a young nuclear power. Based on that, the opposing coalition had likely judged that the Israeli technical capability to use its nuclear weapons should be limited. Moreover, the previous examples of crises between far more formidable nuclear powers that did not deteriorate into nuclear exchanges must have played their role as well, contributing to the emerging nuclear taboo (Tannenwald 89). With this in mind, the Yom Kippur War supports the conclusion that a country with limited capability (real or perceived) to exercise its unclear potential can be perceived as more vulnerable up to the point of conventional attack.
Yet another major factor that has likely affected the Arab coalition’s to go to war against the nation that most likely possesses nuclear weapons was a considerable disparity in terms of conventional military strength. Having on the largest armies in the region, Egypt alone had “800,000 troops, 2,200 tanks, 2,300 artillery pieces, 150 anti-aircraft missile batteries, and 550 first-line aircraft” (Herzog ch. 11). Obviously, not all of these took part in the conflict, the numerical advantage was, nevertheless, on the Arab side. The Syrian army, while not boasting such impressive numbers, they still had up to 2,000 modern tanks of Soviet production and approximately 350 first-line planes (Herzog ch. 5). These forces outnumbered the Israeli defenders by a considerable margin and, as the events demonstrated, could bring their numerical superiority to bear, achieving tactical and even operational victories. Considering this, the case of the Yom Kippur War suggests that the value of nuclear weapons as a deterrent deteriorates of the nuclear power in question is perceived to have limited capability for the use of nuclear weapons as well as thought to be inferiors in conventional military terms.
The Falkland War
The Falklands War, also known as the South Atlantic War, was an undeclared war between Argentina and Great Britain in 1982 – and also an interesting example of aggression of a non-nuclear power against a country with well-established nuclear capabilities. Early in 1982, Argentinian forces landed on the contested Falkland Islands (controlled by Britain as an overseas territory) and forced the military forces there, few in number as they were, to surrender (Freedman 196). A temporary lull in the fighting followed as Britain prepared an expeditionary force to retaliate. Following vigorous logistical effort, Britain transported 6,000 Army soldiers and 3,000 marines with the accompanying naval and aerial forces to a remote location in the South Atlantic over a distance of more than 8,000 miles (Freedman 202). British forces managed to secure several beachheads with little resistance and proved superior in the simultaneous intense aerial combat (Freedman 205). Having its naval and aerial superiority firmly established, the expeditionary force soundly defeated Argentinian forces occupying the islands. The war lasted ten weeks and, while resulting in several hundred dead on both sides, was, by far, the smallest conflict discussed in this paper.
The main reason why Argentinian leadership felt so confident when attacking Britain despite not being a nuclear power was the nature of the conflict as extremely low-stakes. Falklands are a poorly accessible collection of islands with no natural resources and strategic or economic value, a population of roughly 1,800, and approximately 60 miles of roads (Freedman 197). The islands’ only significance was symbolic and went back to the 18th century, when the British and Spanish Empires, and later independent Argentina, conflicted over control of the territory, which remained occupied by Britain since 1833 and soured the relationship between the two countries (Friedman 197). Given the little value the Falklands had in and of themselves, Argentina must have underestimated the British resolve not to accept the fait accompli (Arquilla and Rasmussen 739). This decision, while ultimately proven untrue, made sense, considering that the islands’ symbolic value was greater for Argentinians than for the British. Thus, the Falklands War suggests that low stakes in the conflict increase the likelihood of conventional war despite one side having a nuclear weapon.
Another important factor in the Argentinian decision to go to war was the perceived balance of conventional military force. While Britain, even as a declining power it was, still possessed greater military resources than Argentina, there was the question of how much of those it could ring to bear in a remote theater of operations in the South Atlantic. Due to Britain focusing largely on the possibility of war in Europe against the Soviet bloc, it did not prepare much for the possible conflict with Argentina (Arquilla and Rasmussen 755). Conversely, Argentina doubled its military spending between 1970 and 1981 with a specific focus on preparing its military for operations in South Atlantic (Arquilla and Rasmussen 755). Given the logistical constraints of fighting a war on such a remote theater, Argentinian war planners likely perceived their usable forces as equivalent or superior to whatever Britain must have mustered to oppose them. Hence, the Falklands War once again suggests that the perceived superiority in conventional military terms increases the risk of aggression even against nuclear power in a low-stakes conflict.
While India and Pakistan fought numerous wars since achieving their independence, the 1999 conflict, also known as the Kargil War after the contested city it was fought in and for, was the first confrontation that both countries entered as nuclear powers. Much like the Falklands War described above, the Kargil War was fought over territories disputed for decades – in this case, the region of Kashmir. Unlike the Falklands War, the conflict had a much more prominent threat of nuclear escalation. In May 1999, Pakistani forces attacked and occupied the town of Kargil in the disputed zone, forcing the Indian troops out (Bell and Macdonalds 137). Initial Indian attempts to push the Pakistani forces back to the pre-war border proved unsuccessful. By June, however, India, having mustered sufficient forces and ensured aerial superiority, began to slowly but consistently dislodge the Pakistani army from its defensive positions (Bell and Macdonalds 137). Faced with the prospect of military defeat, the Pakistani government asked for American mediation and, after brief negotiations, agreed to withdraw its troops and restore the pre-war status quo.
What separates the Kargil War from all other examples discussed in this paper is that it is the only protracted conventional conflict waged between two nuclear powers. Counting several hundred casualties on both sides, it was not nearly as brutal as the Yom Kippur War, with thousands of dead and wounded and tanks and aircraft destroyed by the hundreds – but, this time, both warring parties had the capability to escalate the conflict to a nuclear exchange. Similarly, the Cuban missile crisis was undoubtedly more intense than the Kargil War, but the opposing sides never came to changing blows, even with their conventional weapons – unlike India and Pakistan. The timing of the conflict also explicitly highlighted the nuclear capability of both nations, considering that Pakistan tested its first nuclear bomb in 1998, just a year before the war, and India – already a nuclear power by that time – conducted its own tests in the same year (Bell and Macdonalds 137). Thus, the Kargil War is a rare example of a conventional war openly fought by two nuclear states.
The most important factor that allowed this to happen was the limited nature of war goals on both sides. Much like Argentina in the Falklands War, Pakistan relied on a surprise attack to ensure firm control of the disputed territory, hoping that it would force India to accept the new status quo (Bell and Macdonalds 137). In a similar vein, India’s war goals did not go further than reestablishing the pre-war zones of control. Despite its inferior military potential, Pakistan sought to keep the conflict limited by explicitly declaring its dedication to the first use of nuclear weapons in case of a full-scale Indian invasion of Pakistan proper (Bell and Macdonalds 141). In this sense, the Kargil War took the mutually assured destruction doctrine developed during the Cold War and turned it to its head. The threat of mutual nuclear annihilation, which could deter any large-scale high-stakes conflict, also provided a suitable way to keep an existing conflict within the limited conventional means. Hence, the Kargil War once again demonstrates that low stakes in the conflict increase the chance of aggression even against nuclear power.
Budapest Memorandum and the Ukrainian Civil War
The question of whether having nuclear weapons decreases the chances of conventional war and international intervention can only be answered by comparing it to the same chances for a state with no nuclear capabilities. Hence, while the bulk of this paper covers the cases involving a least one nuclear-capable state on at least one side, it is also important to analyze the implication of not having nuclear weapons based on at least one example. The case of post-Soviet Ukraine is fairly suitable from this perspective. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, this 1994 agreement sought to resolve the status of Soviet nuclear weapons deployed in the newly independent Ukraine. According to its terms, Ukraine was obligated to adhere to the nuclear weapon non-proliferation treaty and transfer of all nuclear weapons to Russia (Yost 505). In exchange, the United States, Great Britain, and Russia extended their security guarantees to the newly independent nation. The memorandum was part of a broader effort to limit the nuclear club and avoid the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Despite the occasional periods of animosity between Russia and Ukraine, both sides upheld their obligations under the treaty for twenty years until the tensions between the two countries reached the boiling point. For most of its independent existence, Ukraine engaged in multipronged diplomacy trying to maintain friendly relations with Russia while actively pursuing membership in the EU and NATO (Shymanska 41). After Ukrainian President Yanukovich refused to sign the treaty of association with the EU in 2013, the popular uprising with diplomatic support from abroad deposed its regime in the following year (Shymanska 41). Perceiving Ukraine’s drift toward NATO and the EU as a threat to its interests, Russian military forces intervened and seized the strategically important Crimean peninsula, with Russia officially declaring its annexation soon after. While Russia’s President Putin justified its action by not recognizing the new Ukrainian government as legitimate and insisting Russia had no binding agreement with it, the majority of countries in the world condemned it as a violation of the Budapest memorandum (Shymanska 41-42). The civil war in eastern parts of Ukraine, partially fuelled by Russian support, has continued ever since.
The case of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s breach of the Budapest memorandum may serve as a vivid illustration of what can happen to a non-nuclear power caught in the middle of an acute international crisis. Admittedly, there is no guarantee that even the possession of a small nuclear arsenal would have prevented the Russian attempt to annex Crimea because, as demonstrated by the Falklands War and the Kargil War, attempts at speedy territorial acquisitions designed to present the opposing side with the fait accompli happen even against nuclear states. Yet Ukraine’s example suggests that the absence of nuclear weapons makes conventional military aggression and international intervention a virtual guarantee instead of a mere possibility.
As one can see, the possession of nuclear weapons does not present assured protection against conventional aggression or international intervention but, nevertheless, decreases the likelihood of a nuclear-capable state significantly. The moderating factors influencing the likelihood of war include the capability to deliver nuclear weapons to their targets, the balance of conventional military forces, and the stakes in the conflict. The hypothetical situation with the highest risk of conventional conflict would be a low-stakes limited-goals conflict between the two nuclear-capable states, with the aggressor perceiving the enemy as inferior in conventional military terms and having limited capability to actually use nuclear weapons. At the same time, one must remember that while having nuclear weapons is not a guarantee against a conventional war or international intervention, not having them is a virtual guarantee of both for a country that finds itself in the middle of an acute international crisis.
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