Carolina Panico: How we discuss nuclear weapons really matters
1 May 2023
Opinion: As the world wonders what Vladimir Putin’s next move will be, we should pay attention to how we can use language to reduce the military value of nuclear weapons.
President Vladimir Putin recently declared that Russia will halt participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, the last remaining nuclear treaty between the United States and Russia.
The treaty established limits on deployed strategic nuclear arsenals, capping nuclear assets at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers. The five-year extension of the treaty, announced in February 2021, elevated hopes for more amicable discussions to what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called, “effective arms control that lowers the risks of war and helps prevent arms races”.
However, Putin’s announcement casts doubt on the narrative of control and stability advanced by the US, while drawing attention to the fragility of the mechanisms assumed to be regulating standard practices on nuclear weapons.
New START had meant both could inspect each other’s nuclear arsenal a number of times each year, to ensure the pact was being followed. This was stopped initially because of Covid-19, but Russia is now refusing to resume its involvement.
As the Ukraine-Russia war grinds on and multilateral diplomacy fails to resolve the conflict, we are left with no choice but to hope nuclear weapons will not be used, while the world waits for a peaceful resolution.
Since the war began on 24 February 2022, there have been repeated reports of Putin saying that nuclear weapons, including tactical weapons, remain an option. He has also affirmed Russia would resume nuclear tests if the US conducted one first.
While Russia’s threats are extraordinarily concerning and could lead to grave and unthinkable consequences, US President Joe Biden says Russia has made a “big mistake” and such actions are “not very responsible”. But he reassures us that Putin is “not thinking about using nuclear weapons”.
It is vital to remain attentive to how casting doubt on Putin’s nuclear intentions risks normalising and trivialising them.
We are yet to see how the situation unfolds, but it is still vital to remain attentive to how casting doubt on Putin’s nuclear intentions risks normalising and trivialising them. Rhetoric or not, dismissing the possibility of these weapons being used reduces nuclear threats to mere features of the war, not worth our concern. Neglecting the possibility of nuclear use naturalises such a threat, perpetuating the nuclear status quo and risking escalation. It may also lead Putin to think others are doubting his power.
Of course, escalation can result from exacerbated perceptions of danger in which both sides believe the possibility of nuclear use is imminent. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 showed nuclear threats can work to legitimise false perceptions and lead to catastrophic consequences.
However, it is crucial to pay careful attention to the language used to engage with the nuclear problem and its many meanings.
While President Biden’s intention might not have been to trivialise nuclear threats, the language he used does so. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the possibility of nuclear use remains a reality, no matter the circumstances. There is no escape from the catastrophic humanitarian consequences a nuclear detonation would cause.
Where defence intellectuals and heads of state recognise the possibility of nuclear weapons being deployed, we have seen the reiteration of nuclear weapons’ military might rather than messaging about the human costs of a nuclear detonation.
NATO’s response to Russian nuclear threats highlights the idea that “nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought” while drawing attention to “the severe consequences to Russia” if it decides to use a nuclear weapon.
While NATO’s response reaffirms the unthinkability of a nuclear war, speaking of “severe consequences” also works to support the strategic role of nuclear weapons, and perpetuates a violent nuclear status quo.
Rather than speaking of the power to retaliate and the disastrous consequences to Russia, conversations need to include language reinforcing the humanitarian consequences a nuclear detonation will cause to the world and humanity.
Humanitarian language can help de-escalate the conflict; it reinforces the claim that nuclear wars cannot be won, and the reality that humanity in its entirety would be harmed.
So instead of reaffirming nuclear weapons’ military value, it could reinforce the reality that nuclear security is unachievable.
Humanitarian language can also help de-escalate the conflict; it reinforces the claim that nuclear wars cannot be won, and the reality that humanity in its entirety would be harmed.
As the world wonders what Putin’s next move will be, it is crucial to pay careful attention to how we can use language to create peace and reduce the military value of nuclear weapons. Nuclear use will only become unimaginable when nuclear weapons are eliminated.
An essential part of disarming is reducing the social value of nuclear weapons and changing the rhetoric that insists on saying these weapons are ‘strategically beneficial’.
The catastrophic human and environmental cost of nuclear weapons, not their military might, must lead the conversation.
Carolina Panico is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations. She is a member of the Beyond Nuclear Deterrence Working Group, which is part of the Rethinking Deterrence Research Network, funded by the MacArthur Foundation and housed at Harvard University’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs.
The views in this article are personal opinion and are not necessarily those of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.
The piece first appeared in the May 2023 issue of UniNews.