Ernie Regehr is a senior fellow in defence and Arctic security at The Simons Foundation Canada.
Russia’s recent threats to add nuclear attacks to its brutal assault on the people and infrastructure of Ukraine is a cruel reminder of the harsh, inescapable reality of nuclear deterrence – the very existence of nuclear weapons carries the ever-present danger that they will be used.
Every state with nuclear weapons threatens to use them. In the case of Russia, President Vladimir Putin recently promised his adversaries “consequences you have never experienced” if he decides to unleash these weapons. The more measured language of the 2021 Summit Communiqué of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, meanwhile, said that the organization would only use nuclear weapons in “extreme” circumstances to “impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve.” Russia’s threat of nuclear warfare is more immediate and therefore much more dangerous in this moment, but the point is that both statements clearly threaten the use of nuclear weapons as a possibility. These weapons, both warn, are always at hand and could, in desperate circumstances, be unleashed.
By the simple fact of their Damoclean presence, in both wartime and peacetime, nuclear weapons impose on humanity the relentless task of keeping them from being launched. It is an imperative dangerously dramatized by the Ukraine war, with United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin coming to the only credible conclusion – nuclear war is “where all sides lose.” That truth applies regardless of which side makes the first move.
The preamble to the international Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons states that any use of a nuclear weapon would be “abhorrent to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the tragic fact that neither Ukraine nor its NATO neighbours have the means to prevent a Russian nuclear attack. We can continue to discourage the use of nuclear weapons in our appeals to Russia’s leadership, but in the end we are left waiting to see what the dangerous vagaries of the Kremlin will bring next.
Humanity remains hostage to a global “security” system based on threats and counter-threats of nuclear attack. Russia’s stance is clear, while NATO’s official nuclear doctrine (outlined in its “strategic concept,” which was last revised in 2010) insists that nuclear weapons are the “supreme guarantee” of security for NATO allies. At the same time, NATO also promises to work toward “the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.”
This inherent contradiction has never been in greater need of resolution and the opportunity to advance that effort will present itself at the NATO Summit scheduled for Madrid at the end of June. As a member of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, Canada has a key seat at the table.
The transition from claiming that nuclear weapons are the “supreme” guarantors of security to creating a world without them will hardly be managed in a single meeting, but the upcoming summit does offer a timely opportunity to challenge nuclear orthodoxy – and Canada, along with like-minded partners, has the opportunity and obligation to help drive change.
A modest but worthwhile effort would be to press for a shift in NATO’s nuclear rhetoric – to acknowledge nuclear weapons not as fundamental to security but as a problem to be overcome.
A more concrete and widely encouraged measure would be for NATO to pledge that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons, and to adjust its war planning measures accordingly. A no-first-use commitment should really be a straightforward matter of heeding American security realist Henry Kissinger, who told the Munich Security Conference in 2009 that “any use of nuclear weapons is certain to involve a level of casualties and devastation out of proportion to foreseeable foreign policy objectives.”
NATO currently hosts U.S. tactical nuclear gravity bombs in five European countries, each with fighter aircraft tasked to deliver those B61 bombs to NATO-defined targets. It is an arrangement meant to signal NATO’s technical and political capacity to launch nuclear attacks in the event of a war – in other words, the capacity to start a war that all sides would lose.
Combined with a no-first-use pledge, returning those tactical nuclear weapons to the U.S. would be a prominent turn toward nuclear de-escalation. And removing these barbarous weapons that are, in the end, unusable by any state at all attuned to “the dictates of public conscience” can only enhance security.
Mr. Putin’s brazen threat to launch nuclear attacks presents us with the reality of the use of nuclear weapons – the mass killing of civilians and soldiers alike, as well as vast physical and environmental destruction. In Madrid, Canada will have the opportunity to challenge its NATO partners to take some modest but deliberate steps away from the abyss that nuclear weapons promise.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.