Why Have Nuclear Weapons Not Been Used in Conflict Since 1945?

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Why have nuclear weapons not been used in conflict since 1945?

Nuclear weapons have only ever been used once in human history, and that was during World War II when The United States deployed missiles on Japanese territory, in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. At the time of bombing in 1945 only the USA had developed nuclear weapons, whilst today the pool of states consisting of nuclear weapons is still extremely small, with only nine states laying claim to nuclear technology and weaponry. This nuclear proliferation is explained by Darryl Howlett who explains this as the worldwide spread of nuclear weapons. For Howlett states are nuclear driven because of the ‘strategic, political and prestige benefits’ attached to nuclear weapons[1]. In the modern world the mass media are often critical about nuclear weapons and the threats they pose for society, but this begs the question; why have nuclear weapons not been used in conflict since 1945? To answer this question the issues of taboo and deterrence and the arrival of virtual nuclear arsenals must be called into question, as well as theoretical ideas such as rationality from proliferation optimists and proliferation pessimists. I will also look at whether we currently live in a non-proliferation regime, and look at the alternatives for peace and nuclear non-usage.

The first area of nuclear non-usage I will look at will be the arguments brought forward by proliferation pessimists and optimists. Kennitz Waltz, a proliferation optimist argues on one hand we cannot stop the spread of nuclear weapons. It’s inevitable because states seek power through nuclear weapons; even smaller, less powerful states align themselves with nuclear wielding states for protection and security. But on the other hand, Waltz argues states are rational actors, and believes nuclear weapons will be used responsibly, which is why nuclear weapons have not been used. For Waltz, more states who have nuclear weapons, the better. Waltz writes, “A blatant offensive is madness. Nuclear weapons and states that acquire them will reduce the chances of war and lower the intensity of war.”[2] For Waltz this provides deterrence from the threat of nuclear weapons. If this is the case, it would explain why nuclear weapons were used in the first place; there simply was no deterrence against the United States in Japan.

Arguing against the optimists, Proliferation pessimists have another answer for the non-usage of nuclear weapons. Scott D. Sagen, proliferation pessimist has contradictory views of the state, believing states could be irrational, especially when militaristic figures take over decision making. Sagen argues all military have “organisational behaviour”[3] where by military figures are more likely to resort to nuclear warfare, and for a few who dare to venture, there is always an issue with miscalculation. Sagen argues the only reason nuclear weapons haven’t been used is because there hasn’t been a war worth using them in. For Sagen disarmament is a means of ending the possibility of a nuclear threat.

Furthermore, my next point explores the idea and theory surrounding the concept of taboo as a reason why nuclear weapons haven’t been used since 1945. Taboo is a concept coined by Nina Tanenwald, and it means the ‘tradition of non-use’, in this case nuclear weapons have become stigmatised[4]. For Tanenwald deterrence alone doesn’t explain why nuclear weapons haven’t been used; Deterrence works though in Tanenwald’s view, but only when working side by side with taboo. With nuclear weapons there are moral, ethical and political costs attached, with Tanenwald stating that a ““moral norm" proscribing the use of nuclear weapons developed during the decades after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks”[5] when talking about the moral issues of nuclear weapons. World opinion is also the biggest political constraint, with many people feeling politically and ethically united against the usage of nuclear attacks. In addition the...
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