The nuclear taboo, which has prevented the use of nuclear weapons since 1945, is under pressure. Amidst the crisis of non-proliferation institutions, the war in Ukraine has heightened US-Russia tensions, increasing the threat of the use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones might be the last bulwark of the non-proliferation utopia.
Since 1945, the so-called ‘nuclear taboo’ has been grounded on what British diplomat, historian and International Relations theorist, Edward H. Carr referred to as “the insoluble problem of finding a moral justification for the use of force.” Nuclear weapons are unparalleled in terms of the scale and scope of their destructive power and the fallout from their use has proven to have abhorrent consequences for the victims across generations. The expression ‘nuclear taboo’ has mainly been used to describe the self-restraint of nuclear states in using their arsenals. If we broaden this term to include the self-restraint in acquiring these weapons by non-nuclear states, then this taboo might seem weaker than previously imagined.
The escalation of tensions between nuclear states like the United States, Russia, and China has revived the fear of a nuclear apocalypse. The recent Russian military occupation of Ukraine, allegedly in response to the Kremlin’s concerns over the possibility of NATO’s enlargement to the East, has stoked fears regarding the potential use of nuclear weapons, as well as the possibility of proliferation.
According to a study published by Nature Food in August, with “less than 3% of the world’s stockpiles” a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the US “could kill three-fourths of the world’s population” in two years. In fact, the mutually assured destruction could happen with the use of even fewer or ‘limited’ tactical nuclear weapons.
Establishing the Nuclear Taboo
After the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki raised a death toll of 210.000, the US once again considered the use of nuclear weapons in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. However, it held back to avoid a political backlash amidst the rise of an anti-nuclear sentiment around the globe. As political scientist Nina Tannenwald has demonstrated, the (still alive) ‘nuclear taboo’ has not only responded to changing strategic circumstances such as those in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but it has taken years of collective effort by states, civil society actors, and international institutions to stigmatize the use of the bomb.
To what extent has this ‘nuclear taboo’ been institutionalized and formalized to punish its violators? Is it still strong enough a constraint to hold back belligerent states from dropping the bomb or providing it to one’s allies? Nuclear states still embrace the deterrence mind-set, “defined as the attempt to keep an opponent from adopting a certain course of action by posing risks which will seem to him out of proportion to any gains to be achieved,” although history has shown its limitations. For example, the possession of nuclear weapons is not enough to prevent a conventional military attack. While nuclear abolitionists have made gains on their agenda – for example, through the enforcement of Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2020 – nuclear states have pursued the policy of preserving the status quo in their favour. This means modernizing their arsenals and brandishing the threat of using them as they please. The abolitionists oppose such policies in favour of fully eliminating these weapons. The gap between these two camps has not narrowed. From this perspective, the meaning of peace is a polysemous battlefield.
The development and internationalization of the ‘nuclear taboo’ has been based on the agency of international institutions such as the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Non-nuclear states have also contributed in strengthening the taboo, for example, through the creation of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZs) and the establishment of institutions like the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC), often dismissed by International Relations scholars. Nonetheless, without the commitment of nuclear weapon states and their tacit acceptance of the taboo, the taboo’s prevalence until today would not have been feasible.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968, which has served as the backbone of the non-proliferation agenda, convenes a Review Conference every five years. These conferences are meant to harmonize the contrasting international perspectives on dealing with the existence of nuclear weapons. Since only five nations have the right to possess nuclear weapons, the legitimacy of the treaty is often questioned due to the disproportionate decision-making power in the hands of unassailable and ‘unpunishable’ actors. In other words, “the nuclear taboo” has a problem of incommensurability with the current norms because it has not been translated into a compelling legal substance. The nuclear states’ staunch opposition to the TPNW has been yet another indicator that the nuclear have-nots’ endeavour to abolish the current status quo may prove chimeric.
The last Review Conference concluded on August 26, 2022 without any consensus regarding the final document. This time, the tensions crystallized by the war in Ukraine made this outcome predictable. Russia rejected the statements about the “grave concern” over the military activities around the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia. These unsatisfactory outcomes – nurtured by the open hostility between the US and Russia – are the latest additions to a long list of setbacks facing the modest (and unbalanced) disarmament and non-proliferation agendas.
Certainly, the ‘nuclear taboo’ is in one of its darkest hours due to the weakening of the institutional scaffolding that promoted it. Moreover, the absence of a sort of ‘red telephone’ or a channel of dialogue between confronting nuclear powers has exacerbated the situation. The expiration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 after the US withdrawal also dealt a blow.
In some cases, the use of nuclear weapons on a battlefield might offer some tactical advantage, but it would result in a much larger humanitarian and political disaster. However, what the two nuclear adversaries, the US and Russia, can still do is provide nuclear weapons to their allies. This undertaking would be a flagrant violation of the NPT, which forbids nuclear-weapon transfers, and it would also be a setback of the “nuclear taboo” triggering a proliferation chain of unknown results.
The Future of Non-Proliferation
Has the NPT the strength to prevent the above-described outcome when its last conferences have ended up without a final document? Unfortunately, the above-described developments provide enough evidence to conclude that the ‘nuclear taboo’ could be undermined by the potential mushrooming of new nuclear states amid weakened institutional structures. To preserve the ethos of this taboo from the periphery of power would mean a permanent political and institutional battle with nuclear powers.
The Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, which demand the total absence of nuclear weapons in delimited regional areas under the IAEA’s supervision, have proved to be relevant until nowadays in preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by other states. The restrictions that they enshrine, including activities such as nuclear production, manufacturing, testing and deployment, have helped to reinforce the expanded notion of the nuclear taboo and, in the current belligerent scenario, they could halt a possible chain of proliferation. Although they do not cover conflictual zones like the Middle East and East Asia, amidst the context of a weakening of the NPT the NWFZs might play the role of the last bulwark of the non-proliferation utopia.
Valeria Puga Álvarez is a lecturer at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador. She holds a PhD in International Relations (Corvinus University of Budapest). Her most recent publication “Cooperation for regional security: the effectiveness of the Latin American and Caribbean Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone” appears in the book: Security and safety in the era of global risks (London: Routledge, 2021). Her research interests include: the role of developing countries in the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the South American regional integration initiatives on security, and the North-South dynamics in alternative trade models.
Edward Hallett Carr. The twenty years’ crisis, 1919-1939. An introduction to the studies of International Relations. 2001 reprinted edition. New York: Perennial, 1939, p. 100.
 Henry Kissinger. Nuclear weapons and foreign policy. London: Routledge, 1957, 1984, p. 96.
 Amitav Acharya. “Norm subsidiarity and regional order: sovereignty, regionalism and rule-making in the third world” In: Rethinking power, institutions and ideas in world politics, Whose IR?, London–New York: Routledge. 2014, pp. 217 – 249.
 The Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones in inhabited areas include Latin American and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, most of Africa, Central Asia and Mongolia.
Cover photo by Ilja Nedilko on Unsplash.