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The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons since 1945

The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons since 1945 by Nina Tannenwald. Cambridge University Press, 2008, 472 pp.

Nina Tannenwald is an associate professor (research) at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. The Nuclear Taboo is the culmination of over a decade of research, analysis, and writing on the non-use of nuclear weapons. Tannenwald’s interest in the topic was first generated by her experiences with the anti-nuclear movement. She pursued the topic through graduate school and into her academic career in political science. This book is an expanded version of her 1999 article in International Organization and her widely read chapter co-authored with Richard Price in Peter Katzenstein’s highly regarded volume, The Culture of National Security.

In The Nuclear Taboo, Tannenwald argues that rationalist cost-benefit evaluations and realist emphasis on self-interest and power do not fully account for the nonuse of nuclear weapons since 1945. She convincingly integrates constructivist theory with more conventional explanations, such as deterrence, to show how ideas about national identity, morality in warfare, legitimate use of weapons, and norms (normative expectations of appropriate behavior) have played important roles. She traces how these ideational factors helped to socially construct a self-reinforcing norm of nonuse, or a nuclear weapons taboo. Tannenwald emphasizes the “bottom up” nature of the taboo, showing how it first emerged from beliefs within the general public that exerted pressure on political leaders. These ideas were only later formally institutionalized in arms control agreements. Her conclusion that the taboo has been largely “the fortuitous outcome of a successful ‘muddling through’ the nuclear era [rather] than a clear-eyed rational development” (p. 21) is somewhat unsettling when we think of the future of nuclear proliferation or the evolution of strategic interactions.

Tannenwald’s theoretical argument, extensive archival work, and intricate accounts of how nuclear decisions were made in the White House will be of interest to a wide audience. The book is organized around three intertwined themes: a historical account of the nonuse of nuclear weapons by the United States since 1945, the processes and factors linking rational self-interest and morality that led to the creation of the nuclear taboo, and the impact of the evolving nuclear taboo on US foreign policy. Chapter 1 describes the motivation for the study, defines and defends the use of the concept “nuclear taboo,” and places the book within international relations debates on the impact of norms. Chapter 2 is the theoretical heart of the book that describes how the nuclear taboo developed, became self-reinforcing, and impacts decision making. She argues that norms influenced US nuclear warfare decision making in at least three ways. First, norms regulate by defining limits of acceptable actions that constrain policy options and strategy. Second, they are constitutive, meaning that they shape identities, such as that of a “civilized nation,” that shape policy and strategy preferences. Third, norms can shield complementary practices, such as the use of conventional weapons, from scrutiny.

In addition to her constructivist explanation, Tannenwald evaluates five alternatives: (1) deterrence, (2) fear of setting future precedents, (3) lack military utility, (4) material constraints such as lack of systems, organizations, and capabilities for use, and (5) growing obsolescence of all major war, not just nuclear war. Tannenwald does not claim that the taboo is the only reason for nonuse, but that it is a necessary part of the explanation. The practice of deterrence ultimately relies upon the nuclear taboo. Methodologically, she uses case studies to trace the evolution of the taboo and show how moral and ethical discourse, in addition to self-interested calculations and security dilemma dynamics, influenced decision making and strategy by successive US administrations. Chapters 3–9 are each devoted to a particular time period: Hiroshima and its immediate aftermath, the Korean War, societal pressure and domestic politics during 1953–60, the Vietnam War, institutionalization through various arms control and other formal limitations on nuclear weapons during 1960–89, the 1991 Gulf War, and the post–Cold War era. The case studies are supported by extensive research in presidential archives, memoirs, interviews, and government documents. They are rich in historical detail, particularly on the decision-making processes of US presidents and their key advisors. Unfortunately, anyone interested in the Cuban missile crisis will be disappointed, as there is only a very brief mention of it.

The Nuclear Taboo is an excellent example of how a constructivist theoretical approach can inform our understanding of national security issues, usually seen as the domain of rationalist explanations. Tannenwald’s theoretical argument and case studies skillfully link material factors (the bomb) and ideational factors (norms, beliefs, values, identities) to a material outcome (dropping or launching nuclear weapons) (p. 2, note 4). However, as a constructivist argument, the book only tells half of the story: if factors can be conceived of as both ideational and material, then so can outcomes. If we think in terms of ideational outcomes, then nuclear weapons are used on a near continual basis. That is to say, possession of nuclear weapons constitutes a collective identity between possessors of nuclear weapons and those that do not possess such weapons. This collective identity consists, in part, of mutually understood roles that affect how those who do not possess nuclear weapons behave in the presence of nuclear-armed states, and vice versa. As an analogy we might think about what it means to “use” a gun. Suppose you are walking down a dark alley, someone approaches you pulls back their coat so that you can see a gun in their waistband. If the person then told you to leave the alley, most of us would comply. The behavior occurs despite the fact that the gun was never used in the material sense of being fired.

Constructivist analyses remind us that ideational phenomena are just as relevant as material phenomena. So we should not forget that outcomes can also be ideational; collectively held notions of power constrain and enable the behavior of the powerful as well as the powerless. Practically, we might be reminded of the lesson learned by the Indian defense minister from the 1991 Gulf War: “Don’t fight the United States unless you have nuclear weapons” (quoted in Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”). For examples, we might ponder whether the United States could have constrained the Soviets from putting missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba if it did not have nuclear weapons, or how Israeli relations with neighboring countries might be different if Israel did not have nuclear weapons or if Syria did. And we might also ponder whether the US military would have lost more than 4,000 soldiers in Iraq if Iraq or Iran had had nuclear weapons.

Carol Atkinson, PhD

Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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