The first time President Ronald Reagan announced that “A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought” was before the Japanese Diet on November 11, 1983. Reagan was sensitive to public concerns over the rocky state of U.S.-Soviet relations. His speech came nine days before the airing of an ABC movie, “The Day After,” depicting the impact on Lawrence, Kansas, of a nuclear strike against nearby Kansas City. “The Day After” was watched by 100 million viewers. Reagan had an advance screening. It’s hard to identify a television program that has had a more dramatic impact on public and presidential consciousness of nuclear danger.
Late in 1983, Reagan also began to appreciate how disturbed key Politburo members were by his rhetoric, aggressive U.S. air and naval exercises around the Soviet Union’s periphery, his nuclear build-up, arms reduction proposals that seemed designed to be rejected, and by his beloved Strategic Defense Initiative.
Even as he was speaking in Tokyo, U.S. and NATO authorities were engaged in a command post exercise practicing nuclear release procedures. This exercise, Able Archer 83, worried key members of the Politburo even more, including General Secretary Yuri Andropov. Soviet intelligence operatives were ordered to step up their surveillance of indicators that Washington might be preparing for a nuclear war. They looked for the number of lights on at the Pentagon late into the night and they checked activity at blood banks.
Reagan’s formulation before the Diet didn’t change anything. All good affirmations require repetition. He repeated it during his 1984 State of the Union address. Speaking directly to his audience in the Soviet Union, he said,
“There is only one sane policy, for your country and mine, to preserve our civilization in this modern age: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used.”
Reagan’s canonical statement was, in effect, a declaration of No Use. Saying this twice still wasn’t convincing because only a very few people then knew that Reagan was dead set against Armageddon on his watch and harbored abolitionist views.
When Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev jointly repeated this formulation at their Geneva summit in 1985, skeptics began to take notice. The canonical affirmation by then had congealed into “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” When Reagan and Gorbachev began to act in accordance with this belief, scales fell from before our eyes. Defenders of deterrence orthodoxy became alarmed. Both men meant what they said.
The affirmation of No Use lies at the heart of a norm-based global nuclear order. A safe global nuclear order requires no battlefield use, no nuclear tests, and no nuclear proliferation – vertical as well as horizontal. The first norm is now almost three-quarters of a century old. The second norm (with the exception of one outlier) is already more than two decades old. The third has yet to be put in place. Successful nonproliferation requires extending the first two.
A global nuclear order built around No Use is necessarily backed up by deterrence for as long as nuclear weapons exist. But deterrence alone is insufficient. Deterrence needs back-up to succeed because deterrence is a very dangerous business. Deterrence is all about threats; “strengthened” deterrence usually means sharpening nuclear threats, prompting counter-threats.
Deterrence needs reassurance to prevent mushroom clouds. Reassurance can take many forms but its most important elements are diplomacy and arms control. Deterrence helped prevent nuclear exchanges and major conventional wars since 1945. But deterrence had help from diplomacy and arms control. Deterrence and reassurance don’t work well if one isn’t accompanied by the other.
Deterrence and diplomacy can fail. There have already been two limited conventional wars between nuclear-armed states, and there could be a third. Nuclear deterrence doesn’t help when nuclear-armed states fight with states that do not have nuclear weapons. And deterrence offers no protection whatsoever against blunders and accidents.
Deterrence alone doesn’t create reliable lines of communication that are essential in severe crises. Deterrence alone doesn’t forge personal bonds between leaders intent on reaching agreements to reduce nuclear dangers. Deterrence alone doesn’t reduce nuclear force structure. Deterrence by itself isn’t stabilizing. Deterrence doesn’t prevent arms racing. What deterrence alone cannot achieve, diplomacy and arms control can.
We’ve forgotten what Reagan and Gorbachev taught us. We’ve forgotten how we managed to get through the Cold War without mushroom clouds on battlefields. The thinking of our political and military leaders has regressed. Many now believe that the keys to reducing nuclear danger are strengthening deterrence and maximizing freedom of action by shedding treaties like old-fashioned garments. But we can’t dispense with reassurance.
Diplomacy and arms control have a better track record than deterrence. Diplomacy and arms control have created and strengthened lines of communication, have facilitated crisis management, and have produced deep cuts in nuclear forces. Deterrence without diplomacy and arms control is a recipe for increasing nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons.
Deterrence is being dressed up at a cost of over one trillion dollars, while diplomacy is threadbare. The Trump administration has no evident skills in diplomacy and arms control. It has torn down the diplomatic and arms control achievements of its predecessors. It has great difficulty repeating Reagan and Gorbachev’s canonical affirmation that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
Why? Because to repeat these words might weaken deterrence. But deterrence isn’t undermined by the current state of U.S. nuclear forces; it is undermined by weak leadership, the absence of diplomacy, and the demise of arms control.