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Does the Taboo Against the Use of Nuclear Weapons Increase Their Allure?

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It's only natural that highly charged words find themselves coupled with the word "nuclear." It's almost as if they're attracted by a magnetic force. Three examples spring to mind.

Holocaust: Most frequently, of course, it's used in reference to the slaughter of Jews in World War II. When appended to "nuclear," it describes an earth ravaged to within an inch of its life by nuclear war.

Apartheid: Originally, as we all know, it was the word for segregation in South Africa from 1948 to 1993. When preceded by "nuclear," it describes the perception of some states without nuclear weapons that those in possession of same are keeping them (as well as nuclear energy) for themselves. And yes, it is singularly sleazy to link the word "apartheid" with nuclear weapons.

The first two phenomena are obviously less than fortuitous. The third word, in contrast, falls on the sunnier side of the street. "Taboo," from the Tongan tabu, is a ban or an inhibition born of a social custom and/or deep-seated revulsion. But plant "nuclear" before it and, along with deterrence (as conventional wisdom has it), it becomes, in the words of Nina Tannenwald, author of The Nuclear Taboo, a "normative prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons." (Norm -- "a standard, model, or pattern regarded as typical" according to a popular web dictionary -- is another word often heard in connection with a state's possession or lack thereof of nuclear weapons. Not as charged as the other three words, it doesn't qualify for inclusion in our list.)

In the fall of 2010, the Buddhist publication SGI Quarterly asked Ms. Tannenwald how the taboo developed.

I identify three primary factors: First is a global grassroots antinuclear weapons movement which made it impossible to think about nuclear weapons as just another weapon; the second element was antinuclear politics at the United Nations; and a third element was strategic pressures and the risks of escalation. I might add a fourth element, which is the conscience of individual leaders who really felt that nuclear weapons were morally repugnant and that we had to do something to delegitimize them. So, when you look at how this taboo arose -- the change from 1945, when it was assumed that nuclear weapons would be used in war like any other weapons, to today, when nuclear weapons use by states is almost unthinkable -- it reflects both morality and self-interest. That is, you have a convergence of realist interest and the moral interest -- the sense that these are unacceptable, morally abhorrent weapons -- and that creates a fairly large constituency, perhaps larger than we have had for a long time, for actually moving toward abolition.

While Ms. Tannenwald views the taboo as an agent of disarmament, the case can also be made that, by definition, taboos have a limited shelf life. For example, in the West, the veil has been lifted from topics that societal consensus once deemed unfit for discussion -- such as alcoholism, depression, homosexuality, and divorce. The near-taboo on a wholesale U.S. intervention in foreign countries that had been in effect since the Vietnam War was superseded by the perceived threat of Islamist terrorism. In fact, it vanished into thin air as the United States committed significant numbers of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing like a perceived threat to make a taboo seem like little more than a social nicety.

The West frets about states such as North Korea and Iran developing nuclear-weapons arsenals. On the other hand, many in the field of international relations hold that when a state that heretofore has been rash in its foreign-policy decisions becomes nuclear-weaponized, it becomes a "rational actor." But if another kind of actor -- the non-state variety such as al Qaeda -- were the beneficiary of nuclear weapons, would its new status impel it to think like a state, or, in its case, a caliphate?

Chances are, steeped in taboos as Islamic extremists are, they wouldn't seek to take pleasure in breaking one. Even though fatwas have been issued against the use of nuclear weapons, it's likely that Islamic extremists would simply fail to acknowledge the existence of a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. No, they wouldn't reflexively incinerate the infidels. Instead, they'd probably hold the West hostage to demands such as rolling Israel's boundaries back to before the 1967 War and a removal of all Western armed forces from the Middle East.

We're under the gun: we need to make use of the nuclear taboo as a springboard to disarmament before its expiration date. But there exists another nuclear taboo -- against discussing in polite company the death and destruction caused by nuclear weapons. If we could do away with that we'd be in a better position to be heard and expand disarmament's core constituency.

We could then take advantage of the convergence about which Ms. Tannenwald speaks, between those motivated by realist, and those by ethical, concerns. There's still time to beat those who have no respect for the nuclear taboo to the punch and knock out nuclear weapons before they take us out.

First posted at the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.