Nuclear Ethics for this Moment

Aug 9, 2023 58 min listen

Nuclear weapons today remain a very real existential threat to the future of humanity. Recent developments such as Putin’s posturing regarding use in Ukraine, combined with the stalling of international efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles, force us to reconsider the ethics of nuclear weapons at this critical moment for global security.

On August 9 —78 years to the day after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki—Carnegie Council convened a virtual panel to reflect on and explore emerging ethical questions surrounding nuclear weapons, including the maintenance, potential use, and position as an instrument of deterrence and political power. The event builds upon a symposium collection on nuclear ethics published in the most recent issue of Ethics & International Affairs, the quarterly journal of Carnegie Council.

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SCOTT SAGAN: I would like to start by welcoming everyone to this event hosted by Ethics & International Affairs, the journal of the Carnegie Council. My name is Scott Sagan. I am a professor of political science and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

This panel was brought together as an extension of a collection of essays that were published recently in Ethics & International Affairs that considered the lessons of Joseph Nye’s landmark 1986 book Nuclear Ethics and proposed a set of ideas for changing and for reevaluating nuclear ethics today, and it is within that framework that we have organized this event. We will be discussing how to think about the ethics of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence in our current world.

Before we begin, however, it is important to recognize that today, August 9, is the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, which together with the bombing of Hiroshima a few days earlier killed between 130,000 and 230,000 people, most of whom were civilians—women, men, civilians—not military. This stands as a sobering reminder of the massive human cost that the use of nuclear weapons would entail and the exceedingly high stakes at play whenever we discuss these issues.

I am honored today to be joined by two distinguished panelists. Sharon Weiner is the associate professor of international relations at the School of International Service at American University. Her most recent book is Managing the Military: The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Civil-Military Relations, and Sharon published a superb article, “The Ethics of Choosing Deterrence,” in Ethics & International Affairs in our special symposium.

The second panelist is Tatsu Suzuki, the vice director and professor of the Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition in Nagasaki. Thank you for joining us. Tatsu’s most recent co-authored books include Learning from Fukushima: Nuclear Power in East Asia. Tatsu and I recently worked together in Hiroshima last month on the Hiroshima Roundtable, assessing the risks of nuclear war today.

I would like to start with you, Tatsu. Noting that since this is the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, I wonder if you can tell the listeners and the viewers what the memorial service was like at Nagasaki this year, and tell the listeners whether you think the G7 meeting in Hiroshima earlier this year, where for the first time each state recommitted to strengthening disarmament and nonproliferation efforts toward the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Was that pledge of the G7 significant? Why or why not?

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: Thank you, Scott. Good morning from Nagasaki.

Unfortunately, this year a big typhoon hit the area, so the ceremony was shrunk to a very small meeting inside a building instead of at the Peace Park. This is an important event for the Hibakusha and also for Nagasaki citizens to pray for the victims and also reconfirm our commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Typically, we have speakers including the mayors from Nagasaki and Hiroshima represented and also a speech from the prime minister and secretary-general of the United Nations, and so on, but this year there were only three speakers, unfortunately.

The mayor typically declares a peace declaration every year. This is very important for Nagasaki. This year the new mayor who was elected, Mr. Suzuki, gave a speech, and it was a very powerful speech. In that speech he acknowledged the significance of the G7 Summit, as you said, that this is reconfirming the commitment to non-nuclear war, and this is very important. Unfortunately, though, he also criticized the statement because it includes the sentence “the value of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack.” Deterrence is not a concept actually accepted by the Hibakusha, abolition of nuclear weapons is the goal, and in this speech he said: “I hereby appeal to the leaders of the nuclear states and countries under the nuclear umbrella. Now is the time to show courage and make a decision to break free from dependence on nuclear deterrence.”

A very similar sentence was also included in the Hiroshima mayor’s declaration. He said: “However, leaders around the world must confront the reality that nuclear threats now being voiced by certain policymakers reveal the folly of nuclear deterrence theory.”

Even the governor of the Hiroshima Prefecture had a very strong question: “I would like to ask these nuclear deterrence theorists: How do you bear the responsibility for the lives of innocent Ukrainian citizens who are losing their lives at this very moment? Ukraine is being invaded not because the country abandoned its nuclear arsenal but because Russia’s invasion cannot be stopped due to its possession of nuclear weapons.”

Basically, Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s citizens and the Hibakushas deny deterrence theory, and that is the commitment we confirmed at the ceremony. Thank you.

SCOTT SAGAN: I think you have set up the first question for Sharon perfectly here because, Sharon, your article is critiquing deterrence. You have a wonderful section about what you call the “narrative of necessity,” and you write: “Rather than strategic necessity, deterrence may be institutionalized behavior accepted because it has always been practiced rather than because it makes sense.” Tell the listeners what you mean by this.

SHARON WEINER: First of all, Scott and Tatsu, it is nice to be with you both here.

When nuclear weapons were invented in 1945, the strategy for using them became deterrence, and it is still deterrence. This is the idea that you purposefully dissuade an adversary from taking action you do not want them to take because of the threat of immeasurable pain and suffering, the type of suffering that can only be caused by nuclear weapons.

Deterrence is still the strategy guiding our nuclear weapons’ fore-structure and planning, but is this because deterrence is a great means of achieving security, or is this really because the national security establishment, like all bureaucracies, essentially gets stuck? Bureaucracies are not good at innovating, and past choices become standard operating procedures, and because they are standard they are not reconsidered, they are not compared against new options, they are not compared against new alternatives. They remain in place because of tradition. Now you could say these traditions, these standard ways of doing things, make it easier to plan, to budget, and to train expertise. It is easier to consistently make decisions about nuclear weapons if you assume deterrence is the proper strategy.

Assuming deterrence was the correct choice back in the 1940s, it also absolves us of actually reconsidering some fairly uncomfortable questions, such as: Is it necessary to base our national security on a threat to commit suicide or on a threat to commit genocide against other people?

Let me provide a brief and hopefully contemporary illustration that will appeal to people who are listening, the Barbie movie. Some of you have seen the Barbie movie. Barbie, after being initially accepted—she was the first girl doll that allowed people to project their ambitions through her—then got into trouble because she had an unrealistic body type; so she evolved, and today you can get a Barbie with different skin tones, hair type, and body type; you can get a Barbie with acne, with missing limbs. She changed because the expectations Americans had of what it means to be feminine changed.

If you contrast this with the Oppenheimer movie, at the very beginning, this whole movie is about Oppenheimer struggling with the basic question at the core of deterrence: Does our national security really rest on the threat to kill so many people; does it have to do this?

The problem is, unlike Barbie, we stopped wrestling with this question. We assumed the answer was yes, that threatening to kill potentially a good percentage of life on this planet is an appropriate way to achieve our national security. I am not saying it is or it isn’t, although you can probably guess what my answer would be. I am saying that ethics requires us to repeatedly ask and examine this question, and that is something we are not doing.

So let me actually, Scott, let me turn this to you. I just argued that bureaucracies get used to practicing something that then becomes an unexamined routine. Does something similar happen when militaries are asked to avoid civilian casualties? In your piece you argue quite eloquently that you should focus targeting on military power and senior political leadership, use conventional weapons instead of nuclear where possible, and reject the doctrine of belligerent reprisal, and all these things would reduce civilian casualties. But how can we expect the national security bureaucracy to actually implement these ideas that you present in your article?

SCOTT SAGAN: I think you are right, Sharon, that organizations tend to follow routines, they get into habits, and they repeat what they said the last time around, and you see that a lot when you look at national security policies such as the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). But I think that sometimes when you point out facts or you have disputes even a slow-moving bureaucracy can change. Let me give a couple of examples.

It has been widely said by people in the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and in other parts of the military that: “Deterrence works because we hinted that we might use nuclear weapons in 1991 against Saddam Hussein and he did not use nuclear weapons, so that shows a ‘calculated ambiguity,’ nuclear threats can be effective.” As was pointed out in the National Academy of Sciences’ recent report on nuclear risk, that interpretation of what happened in 1991 is not accurate, and I think it is going to be far less likely to be used again and again and again when it has been pointed out.

The same thing happened with the Trump Nuclear Posture Review statement, which repeated and actually recreated an old USSTRATCOM figure—this is something you comment on in your article, Sharon—that says that the percentage of the world population killed in interstate wars dropped precipitously after the end of World War II and claims it was because of nuclear weapons. But Jim Scouras has a wonderful article that makes the argument that when the population increases, even if the number of people who die in wars stays the same, of course the number goes down, so this can easily be statistically refuted. I do not think that is going to be used again because even people in the establishment—like Scouras, who has a long career inside government—have ridiculed particular uses.

When it comes to killing civilians as a deliberate act, here I do not know what is in the classified version of the Nuclear Posture Review, but I do know that the USSTRATCOM judge advocate generals (JAG) strongly believe that direct targeting of civilians is illegal and they have raised questions about whether rejecting belligerent reprisal would be valuable or not. So there are some people in the JAG Corp—active, not just former—who have raised that question.

In a recent article in International Security, four longstanding writers of Nuclear Posture Reviews said that they would never have advocated the direct targeting of civilians even in reprisal to an attack on our civilians. I take that as a promising note.

I would note, however, that in the same article a former State Department high official from the Trump administration said, “Of course we target civilians in response to an attack on our civilians,” and incorrectly cited some texts that were not government-sponsored texts to support his position.

So I hope that there is pushback against belligerent reprisal and it is one of those acts that could be I think usefully changed by outside criticisms.

Tatsu, I have been very interested on the Japanese side about the concern about “no first use.” I know that you have personally advocated for no first use, as have I, but I do not know the position of the Japanese government as well as you do. I know that there are some concerns by some that a no-first-use doctrine, which I think would be a step in the right direction, would be a weakening of a deterrent posture. What are your thoughts on that?

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: The government’s official statement on no first use is that this is just a declaration of policy. There is no way to verify other countries’ wills, so unless all nuclear-weapon states agree on this policy with some kind of verification, the Japanese government cannot support the idea because we cannot defend ourselves. That is the official statement.

I also heard that several government officials are discussing the idea that nuclear deterrence should also deter non-nuclear attacks like chemical or biological weapons, so no first use cannot guarantee protection against non-nuclear attacks. Those are the two main reasons.

My thought is: Can you imagine that Japan would ask the United States to use a first nuclear attack on any occasion in this region? It is very difficult to think about those cases.

Japan actually has a dilemma, that most of the Japanese public is also in favor of the abolition of nuclear weapons and signing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), but at the same time, the majority of the public supports extended nuclear deterrence. That is the dilemma we face. No first use also is not openly publicly debated in Japan, unfortunately.

SCOTT SAGAN: It is unfortunate.

Can you tell me what are the scenarios that are worrying people the most? Is it an aggressive China or are they mostly worried about North Korea?

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: I think both. North Korea occasionally launches a missile in the area. Every time they launch missiles there is a so-called J ALERT, which is a signal coming from the government that they should hide and evacuate, and that kind of thing probably frightens the people.

At the same time, Chinese nuclear expansion is also a very serious concern. I was surprised to see in public polling that a majority of the public now supports the new Japanese defense security policy to increase the defense budget to almost double in the next five years. Particularly, the Taiwan issue is the main concern for Japan.

SCOTT SAGAN: Before we continue on, I want to remind listeners that if you have a question you can put it into the chat and we will reserve time at the end. Please submit via the chat and we will have some questions as we go forward.

Sharon, you set up a discussion of Oppenheimer by mentioning it in your opening comments.


SCOTT SAGAN: I wonder if you could comment about your views on the film. You are correct, I believe, in saying that there has not been nearly enough debate in the United States on the ethics of deterrence and we often as a country sleepwalk on these topics, leaving it only up to the experts or people on the inside, but what is your view about the movie and its potential to arouse public opinion?

SHARON WEINER: I am not an expert on the relationship between advocacy and the media, but the torment and the personal concerns that Oppenheimer goes through, the contradictions he tries to face in the movie and that he faced in real life between choosing to do something that he thought was necessary for national security that also caused such tremendous destruction, plus his knowledge, which you can see in the movie—I mean this is no spoiler alert here—that he knew and the physicists knew that it was not that hard to make a nuclear weapon, that others would do it, and from the very beginning they could foresee this problem, which Oppenheimer calls “two scorpions in a bottle.”

I think the ethics of nuclear weapons requires all people who are governed by a nuclear umbrella to have that conversation with each other, with themselves. It is a difficult conversation. I think that is one of the reasons we do not talk about nuclear weapons more than we do, to ask yourself, “Is it worth my security to threaten to kill myself?” which is one question, but it is another to ask, “Is my security worth threatening to kill huge numbers of other people?”

Scott, you mentioned that there might be a possibility or a seriousness about not targeting civilians, but that is in the first strike. Deterrence is also based on the notion that you will deter escalation by the promise of future even more devastating strikes, and at some point that escalation means you cannot avoid civilian casualties.

If you look at every single Nuclear Posture Review, I do not believe there is a single statement in any of them about how you would control escalation, so even planning on that first strike or even a second strike against solely military targets is irrevocably linked to the threat that you will escalate to all-out war and complete destruction.

SCOTT SAGAN: Certainly there is, I think, that tendency. What I have argued is that we should as a matter of policy follow what I have called the “nuclear necessity” principle in an article with Jeffrey Lewis, arguing that we should never use a nuclear weapon against any target that could be destroyed with high probability by a conventional weapon.

Now some people on the legal side will say, “Yes, that makes a lot of sense and that would be appropriate,” but some have criticized that view saying, “You are going to reduce collateral damage if you follow such a policy.” I said, “Yes, that’s the reason why we proposed the policy.” Then they say, “But reducing collateral damage will weaken deterrence.” I find this really troubling.

In the most recent book on this subject, Managing U.S. Nuclear Operations in the 21st Century, General Robert Kehler, a former USSTRATCOM commander, writes: “As commander I fully embraced U.S. policy to apply legal principles to nuclear plans and welcomed the clarity that came with the academic and policy debates about those principles, but I was concerned that increasingly restrictive constraints and legal interpretations appropriate to conventional war may not be achievable or desirable if carried to extremes when applied to nuclear weapons and their unavoidable collateral effects. The risk associated with those collateral effects is a major factor that contribute to deterrence.”

My own view is that if you are using collateral effects for deterrence it is no longer collateral. I found that statement by Robert Kehler, whose views I have long admired, to be very disturbing.

I think that we do need to maintain strong deterrence, but I think that reducing the role of nuclear weapons in that deterrence would make it both more legal and more ethical, and I do not think that deterrence has to be based on deliberate or collateral damage against civilians.

SHARON WEINER: Can I step in just for a minute?


SHARON WEINER: We are talking about this as a conversation between Americans, Russians, Chinese, the Japanese covered by the nuclear umbrella from the United States and other countries that are covered by the nuclear umbrella, but we also have to invite in all the other countries in the world because, as you both well know, if nuclear weapons are used, you are not going to contain the damage to just the belligerents.

If you look at international law—and, Scott, this is your area, not mine—the argument about proportionality that if you are not involved in the conflict in the first place, you should not be involved in the response to the conflict, but with nuclear weapons the externalities, that devastation, is not going to be just confined to the combatants. I think that is also an ethical element that involves everybody in the world, not just the countries that are covered by deterrence and a nuclear umbrella.

SCOTT SAGAN: I think that even our estimates of collateral damage are often way off. There has been a lot of work done on risks of nuclear winter, but it has been disputed by people on the inside whether nuclear winter really would occur, and, as far as I know, therefore the potential risks of nuclear winter are not included when one talks on the inside about collateral damage effects.

Moreover, the work by Stanford Medical School's Professor Paul Wise has shown that in conventional conflicts more people often die after the war is over because of the damage to health care systems that occur in a war than actually died during the war.

I think that is an important thought when it comes to nuclear weapons as well. If Paul is right—and I believe the statistics demonstrate that he is—it would suggest that the damage of that other form long after a war is over—just as in Japan the number of people who died in your city, Tatsu, and in Hiroshima continued dying for years afterward—and I think that would occur in a widespread manner as well.

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: We did a simulation of a limited nuclear war in this region if the Chinese use nuclear weapons first in the Taiwan conflict and the United States responded.

The first thing we realized is that the likely first targets are not in the United States but in the U.S. bases in South Korea and Taiwan, killing many civilians in both South Korea and Japan, not in Taiwan but based in Japan, so many people would be killed first not in the United States but in South Korea and Japan.

The second is that only 24 nuclear weapons were used in our case, but still—

SCOTT SAGAN: In your nuclear war game scenario?

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: Yes, in our scenario 24 nuclear weapons were used, and still the casualties—

SCOTT SAGAN: Quotation marks around “only.” Twenty-four is still a lot.

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: “Only” is still a lot, and 2.6 million people would be killed within a year. Also radioactive fallout, as Sharon suggested, will be not only in the region but will cover Southeast Asia and Guam and the South Pacific. So “only” a limited number of nuclear weapons could kill millions of people. This is a simulation we did for our study. It is frightening.

SCOTT SAGAN: Have the Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine influenced the debates in Japan?

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: Yes. People are starting to say Taiwan is the next Ukraine and we could be involved in a nuclear war.

SCOTT SAGAN: I thought the most worrisome threat that Putin made was in September last year, when he announced the annexation of parts of the Donbas, and said that now if they are attacked he would consider using nuclear weapons, and then added that there is a precedent for using nuclear weapons to end a war. He particularly mentioned Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hinting that he might use nuclear weapons not on the battlefield to destroy, say, a Ukrainian battalion, but against a city to deliberately attempt to coerce the Ukrainian government into giving up.

I do not know what the U.S. officials said to their counterparts. President Biden said that there would be “catastrophic responses” to Russia but did not specify what those costs would be.

I hope that someone said, “Regardless of what you think about the history of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and whether the bombing contributed or didn’t to the ending of the war, the fact was that in 1945 Japan could not hit back at the United States.” With any use of nuclear weapons by Russia today I think Ukraine could hit back, and the United States I hope said that we would ensure that they have that capability without saying exactly what it would be. That is a form of deterrence, I would think, but it is not necessarily nuclear deterrence.

Sharon, do you agree with that? What do you think are the dangers with Ukraine?

SHARON WEINER: I think when we talk about deterrence we have to remember that deterrence is an age-old strategy. Parents try to deter their kids from doing bad things. This is a means of persuasion.

The problem with deterrence is when you add the destructive capability of nuclear weapons and you link that deterrence to a rung of escalation that always ends in the same place. To quote the former head of Strategic Command talking about their war games, “It always ends bad; it ends in thermonuclear war.” So deterrence is not the problem. It is deterrence with nuclear weapons that is the problem.

SCOTT SAGAN: There was a military war game inside the White House in 2016, the second Obama term, which was quite good at predicting the future, in that it had Russia going not into Ukraine but into the Baltics, into a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) country, trying to grab a piece of land on the argument that the Russian speakers there were being persecuted, and when the conventional invasion bogged down, Russia used one nuclear weapon against a NATO airbase.

According to Fred Kaplan’s book The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War, there was a debate at the deputies level of the National Security Council, with some saying, “We should respond with nuclear weapons,” and others—and eventually their position won—saying, “No, we should respond conventionally. We should try escalation control by attacking military bases inside Russia, which they had not yet done in this scenario, and do it conventionally. That is a form of escalation control and deterrence, but one that would not necessarily lead to a rapid escalation.”

However, the next day the principals—the secretary of defense, national security advisor, etc.—met and said that their recommendation for a policy would be to use nuclear weapons against those bases. They were told by the Red Team—the people playing the Russians—that if you do that, the Russians are going to have to use nuclear weapons against the United States. So instead they used nuclear weapons against Belarus, which was not engaged in the attack.

The deputies reportedly had T-shirts made which said, “The deputies had the right idea,” and I think they did. I am pleased that some of those deputies have been members of the Biden administration since that time.

SHARON WEINER: But such situations like this also bring in questions about human decision-making in a crisis. This was a war game, and I am sure the players experienced some level of stress, but everything we know about human behavior says that when we are in a crisis we do not necessarily make the right decision, we don’t think rationally. If you look at some theories, there is the notion of when you are in a crisis when you should play it safe but instead you go for broke. Most of the ideas about pathologies of decision making suggest that in a nuclear crisis things are not going to go as planned and they are not going to go well.

So there is another element to deterrence with nuclear weapons that needs to be reexamined, and that is the ethics of making a threat which it may not be within human rationality to control or to consider if it ever has to be carried out.

SCOTT SAGAN: Can you briefly tell listeners about the scenarios that you have been running to have individuals playing the president coming under nuclear attack?

SHARON WEINER: My colleague, Moritz Kütt, and I have a virtual reality program—everybody wants to do some VR—but in our case it is a virtual reality crisis where you are the president of the United States and you experience a nuclear attack, and you get options, you can ask any question you want, and you can literally do anything you want, and we try to see what responses people make.

Almost everyone picks one of the nuclear options that is presented to them and uses nuclear weapons in a very escalatory fashion. Afterwards you ask them, “Well, did you intend to do that or is that what you wanted?” and it is not clear that was their goal at all. The choices that were presented to them really carried the day, as opposed to them controlling the situation, acting presidential, and doing what would best achieve their goals.

SCOTT SAGAN: I participated in that, and it was really fascinating, because you had such pressure to execute quickly with a simulated military officer telling you what the options were and how little time you had to make your decision. I believe I resisted and said, “I am going to get the helicopter and get out of here and I do not want you to attack,” but the pressure to conform was enormous.

SHARON WEINER: Do you remember if you asked if the lawyers had vetted the targeting options for civilian casualties?

SCOTT SAGAN: I would certainly have wanted to know all that.

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: There is a legal question for Japan regarding extended nuclear deterrence. A recent paper by Kimiaki Kawai said that Japan, which ratified the Geneva Conventions with additional Protocol I, has been silent on the vague idea of extended nuclear deterrence.

If Japan considers additional Protocol I does not apply to the use of nuclear weapons, Japan is supposed to assume that if Japan is attacked, then the United States can attack against a civilian population; but if you assume that Japan has already been attacked, which means that many Japanese have already suffered from nuclear attack, then the Japanese public will ask the Japanese government to request the United States to attack against civilians in that enemy country. That is the first question.

If Japan considers the additional Protocol does apply to the use of nuclear weapons, then the question arises for the Japanese government that Japan probably cannot be legally allowed to request the United States to carry out reprisals against the enemy under extended nuclear deterrence. So the legality of extended nuclear deterrence has not been debated in Japan much, but this raises a fundamental question the legality of extended nuclear deterrence. It is a very interesting question.

SCOTT SAGAN: I am going to turn to some questions from people who are watching.

The first one for you, Sharon, from the philosopher Ned Dobos in Australia, saying: “You are right that parents try to deter their children, governments try to deter their citizens, those things happen all the time, but they fail a lot too. For example, during the pandemic, consider what happened: After the governments issued lockdown orders and then backed them up with severe penalties, most citizens obeyed, but some went out of their way to openly defy the restrictions that their government placed. Criminologists are very sensitive to the ways in which deterrent threats can be counterproductive. Is there a similar risk in international relations, and why aren’t we talking more about that?”

SHARON WEINER: This is a great question and a great observation. What the question suggests is that when you try to deter someone you could deter them or you could get the opposite, you could get them just going ahead with the behavior almost in spite of you.

The problem is that you do not know in a deterrent situation in advance which of those behaviors you are going to get. There is an element of probability and luck, and there is an argument that you do not know which of those behaviors you are going to get until you actually see it.

When you add the destructive power of nuclear weapons to that equation, it means you are gambling with significant casualties and significant destructive capability; you know that it is possibly going to work and it is possibly not going to work. It almost feels like quantum probability here—there are all these probabilities of what could come out.

But it seems to me worthy of a conversation about ethics about using such destructive capability when you cannot know in advance with any surety what the outcome will be, and the outcome could be what you want, not what you want, or almost anything in between.

SCOTT SAGAN: Tatsu, I think this question is for you from Martha Crawford: “We have been talking about what Americans think mostly and what Japanese think, but you also have many colleagues you interact with from China and from South Korea. How are they debating questions about ethics and nuclear disarmament or ethics and nuclear deterrence?”

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: Honestly I do not know much about the legal and ethical questions that they are discussing.

South Korean people are basically afraid of attacks from North Korea and they are debating actually the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence. That is the first thing I hear from them.

From the Chinese I am not sure they discuss much, but their policy of no first use, if that is still maintained, may be based on your suggestion that so-called “calculated ambiguity” should be excluded, as you suggested. This is very close to a so-called “sole-purpose policy.” So I think they may be debating ethical and legal questions regarding nuclear weapons on that perspective of no first use.

SCOTT SAGAN: Certainly public opinion in South Korea has shifted to being in favor of acquiring nuclear weapons. There have been occasional flirtations with that idea from high-ranking government or presidential candidates.

Lauren Sukin at the London School of Economics has a very interesting article that shows that some of the increase in public support in South Korea for getting nuclear weapons comes not from people who think the U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons in defense of South Korea is not credible enough—that is the standard explanation—but many of them favor getting nuclear weapons because they think the United States was, as she puts it, “too credible” under Donald Trump, that we may use nuclear weapons whereas they don’t want us to use nuclear weapons, where it would be utterly irrational to use nuclear weapons. She found that this recent growth comes from both sides, the left side and the right side.

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: Very interesting.

SCOTT SAGAN: That was particularly alarming, which I found pretty interesting.

SHARON WEINER: Can I make a brief comment here? I always find polling questions fascinating, but the questions always ask, “Are you in favor of getting nuclear weapons?” It is never asked, “Are you in favor of threatening to sacrifice your entire country in the name of your security?”—which is essentially what you are threatening to do when you get nuclear weapons. Or it is never asked as, “Are you willing to become a nuclear target of—North Korea, China, whomever—in order to guarantee your own security? Would you be better off if you were a nuclear target than not being a nuclear target?”

I think the phrasing of these questions is also something that should be examined because it is actually hiding the value tradeoff that you are asking people to make.

SCOTT SAGAN: But I think in this case, Sharon, the South Koreans already feel that they are a nuclear target, they know because Kim Jong-un says so loudly and often, so for them it is a question of having what I think they see as a retaliatory capability and not as a first-use capability. But I do not think they have thought through all of the potential consequences that could exist in that kind of scenario.

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: I tend to agree with Sharon that the term “nuclear umbrella” is very misleading, that people think that we are protected by the umbrella. But there is no umbrella physically, and, as you said, a nuclear umbrella means that we are asking the United States to threaten to kill the civilians or the enemy’s people with the nuclear weapons, and people do not think that way with the term “nuclear umbrella.” So we have to change the term “nuclear umbrella” to something else, “nuclear threatening” or something like that.

SCOTT SAGAN: Yes. “Umbrella” is a cute metaphor that misleads people very easily.

There is a question from Pierce Gordon, I believe for me: “What can you say more about belligerent reprisal and how does it relate to nuclear weapons?”

Belligerent reprisal is a rather obscure but very important legal concept which says that you can break a treaty law that you have signed in response to somebody else previously breaking a law in order to, or at least in an attempt, to bring them back into legal conformity. So if someone breaks a treaty, you can take an act that is proportionate with what they have done—it does not have to be identical—that it can be a deliberate attempt to say, “I am going to do this until you stop doing what you are doing,” to bring them back into conformity.

The additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions did not rule out the concept of belligerent reprisal, but what it did rule out was belligerent reprisal against prisoners, against nuclear power plants, and against civilians, so you cannot do any of those three things. You could attack a military target or break another part of an agreement—you could deploy more anti-ballistic missiles than you had an agreement to if that treaty was still in place or you could do other things—but you cannot target those three categories.

The United States, when it signed the additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention, said that they did not apply to nuclear weapons and said that the threat of belligerent reprisal if someone attacks our civilians, the threat to respond in kind adds to deterrence.

Allen Weiner and I argue, however, that that statement made 30 years ago has not been repeated by others, and indeed President Obama and even the Trump Nuclear Posture Reviews said directly that “We will not deliberately target civilians.” To me that suggests that the United States agrees that we will not do that even under belligerent reprisal, but it just does not want to say so because it thinks that adds an element of deterrence.

That is my view on belligerent reprisal today, although I know there are others, such as Chris Ford writing in International Security, who disagree with that position.

Here is a question I think for all of us, but I wish we had a Russian specialist with us. Maybe, Sharon, you can start because you have read more into this than either Tatsu or I, I think: “What kind of informed conversations are there in Russia today about nuclear weapons? What can you tell the audience about some of the academic writings that have been going on over the war in Ukraine?”

SHARON WEINER: Let me not lay claim to being an expert on Russian public opinion or Russian attitudes at all on this subject, but I have been reading some of the things coming out of Putin’s counsels about the potential use of nuclear weapons, including by people who in the 1990s were all in favor of U.S.–Russia cooperation.

A couple of those arguments have been as follows: “The United States is evil, and it is our responsibility to use nuclear weapons to rid the world of this problem. Now we understand that some of us Russians will die because the United States has a secure second strike on submarines, but some of us will live, more of us than them, and therefore it is our moral duty to undertake this on behalf of the world.”

Let’s hope that is just a couple of folks and, even though they are advisors to Putin, the notion that it is your responsibility to use nuclear weapons on behalf of other people and the notion that you somehow win if there are a few more of you left than the other side—I mean that is completely beside the point; nobody is going to win a nuclear war—but this is the argument that it is too convenient to make if you are, for example, a military planner thinking in conventional military terms that the more targets you destroy of the enemy the better off you are; but in nuclear terms that is not the appropriate calculation at all.

SCOTT SAGAN: That is a real question about the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Japan is a signatory of the NPT and is actually one of the leading non-nuclear weapon states advocating that others join the Treaty. The Japanese have refused to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Can you explain why to our listeners and also explain your own position?

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: The official government statement on TPNW is that unless the nuclear-weapon states join this Treaty it will not eliminate any nuclear weapons, so Japan has to work with nuclear-weapons countries to proceed for nuclear disarmament and TPNW is not the right way to work with nuclear-weapon states. That is the official position of the Japanese government.

My position is that that is probably true for the short term, but the TPNW is based on the split of humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which the Japanese government actually is also pushing very strongly for in the NPT, they are concerned every time, so that Japan can agree with the spirit of the TPNW.

There are many clauses—for instance, the TPNW has a clause to help support the victims of nuclear attack and also nuclear weapons tests. Japan is the only country that has experience of victims of nuclear weapons and Japan can help those people who are suffering from the effects of nuclear tests and nuclear weapons.

Secondly, also for the verification of nuclear weapons Japan has the technical knowhow to help. So I would say that Japan can at least help with the split of the TPNW and join at least as an observer to the TPNW at this moment.

SCOTT SAGAN: We have a question from Nitish Valyettan asking whether anyone on the panel knows how India and Pakistan are reacting to the invasion of Ukraine and the nuclear threats. Have either of you read or seen—the only thing that I know, to answer Nitish’s question, is that Indian Prime Minister Modi was at the G7 meeting. Is that correct, Tatsu?


SCOTT SAGAN: He signed on to the nuclear disarmament Article 6, which I thought was interesting. It has also been reported that he told Putin that using nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be a real disaster—I do not know the exact words he used – and I have not seen any actions out of Pakistan.

SHARON WEINER: This also illustrates one of the problems with deterrence. Here we are trying to figure out what lessons other nuclear powers are taking from this conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling. If this was a proper theory, the lesson should be clear for all of us, but we could make arguments that nuclear powers could take lessons that are directly antagonistic toward each other.

SCOTT SAGAN: Right. Putin may be taking the lesson that nuclear threats work because the United States has not directly intervened, and others may be taking the lesson that nuclear threats do not work because we give them so much aid and have indirectly been involved in the war. A reasonable person could take either lesson. I think that is really fascinating.

We only have two more minutes. Tatsu, are there any final thoughts that you want to share with our audience that we did not get to in the questions in the Q&A?

TATSUJIRO SUZUKI: I think for non-nuclear-weapon states negative security assurance is a very important policy that we can pursue. We have not discussed much that it is the moral responsibility for nuclear-weapon states not to attack countries without nuclear weapons. I hope that concept and that policy are more assured with some kind of legally binding treaty or something like that. That would help much the assurance against nuclear attack for non-nuclear-weapon states.

SCOTT SAGAN: Sharon, any last thoughts you want to share?

SHARON WEINER: I would just say one of the things we have not talked about is accountability and the ethics associated with the fact that only one person unchecked in the United States can make a decision to use the nuclear arsenal. The notion that only the president gets to do this and does not require advisor consent or even consultation with anyone else is something that I think is part of the conversation about ethics.

SCOTT SAGAN: Excellent.

This marks the end of this I think really interesting seminar. I want to thank you, Sharon, and thank you, Tatsu, for joining us.

I especially want to thank all of the members of the staff of Carnegie Council and the journal Ethics & International Affairs for trying to reignite what I think is a very important discussion that we have to have about the ethics or lack of ethics involved with nuclear deterrence.

Thank you very much, and thank you especially, Tatsu, for joining us so early in the morning.


SCOTT SAGAN: Thank you, Sharon.

SHARON WEINER: Thank you, Scott.

SCOTT SAGAN: Thank you very much.

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Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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