Trump’s remarks at the UNGA concerning the likely path Washington would take if North Korea did not stop missile testing would have raised many eyebrows in normal circumstances, but they were unsurprising to most people. This is because the US President and North Korea Kim Jong-Un have already been exchanging fiery rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons since the former started his Presidency, fueled by Kim Jong-Un’s relentless missile testing, and the most recent of the developments being Pyongyang’s hydrogen bomb test conducted a month ago and believed to be of approximately 100 kiloton yield. Since then, a new phase of hostile statement-swapping has ensued, in which, keeping up with the custom, other people within the US administration are left to do damage control and “clarify” US position on the North Korea policy. The “New York Channel”, which was a back channel of talks with North Korea already existed. Lately, a number of more direct channel between the US and North Korea via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with officials in North Korea have opened up as well, but was, interestingly and incomprehensibly, shot down by US President Trump himself with him dubbing the efforts a waste of time.
Seventy years have passed since the bombs that marked the end of WWII were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the swift and massively decisive victory, that led the US, the sole owner of nuclear weapons at the time, to an immediate superpower status and, in essence, the currency to shape the political world in the post-WW2 era, nuclear weapons have not since been used again. This non-usage of nuclear weapons after 1945, called the nuclear taboo, is explained by a normative explanation of state behavior that regulates deterrence. Deterrence practices are embedded in universal norms, reflected in legal international practices such as Negative Security Assurances, Nuclear Weapons Free Zones, the general principles of International Humanitarian Law (laws governing war) and discussions regarding a Nuclear Ban Treaty. Although it is hard to pinpoint in terms of state practice where the psychological bar of the taboo comes into play and how much it determines behavior since the non-practice of a behavior is not a proof of its existence, the taboo is universally accepted as the phenomenon that explains the pattern of non-use. This taboo has been upheld all these years but it may be weakening.
While Kim Jon-Un’s administration seems determined to fight fire with fire, and with Trump showing no inclination of moderating his statements, an increasing pressure may inexorably be exerted on the existing taboo. First, because nuclear deterrence requires an element of credibility, which may be eroding as Trump issues threat after threat of the use of force, even without any actual action on his part. The likely outcomes of this behavior would be: either a failed deterrence policy, resulting (as it has been so far) in an unabated North Korean nuclear programme, or pressure on the US administration to take some action in the form of either nuclear use or conventional military action that may subsequently lead to nuclear weapons use.
Second, although the nuclear taboo drives non-use of nuclear weapons, the norm against the use of threats of nuclear use does not exist. In fact, the nuclear taboo plays an essential role in deterrence. The horror of the use of nuclear weapons use makes their use by a state all the more unlikely and reprehensible and therefore induce/compel desired behavior in other states. Thus, the taboo serves a function of deterrence in that it constrains behavior in a way that regulates actions of states to maximize restraint and the effects of the act of deterrence, i.e. the threat of use, simultaneously. In the Trump-Jong-Un era, however, the rhetoric ensuing back and forth between the two is dangerous because it plays on the very thin line between nuclear signaling and actual use. Since norms are implicit functions of behavior which reflect morality, the way that nuclear weapon threats are currently being thrown about may jeopardize the discourse that has principally shaped and formed this taboo.
Although some analysts believe that for the US political right, using nuclear weapons has always been thinkable, starting from the beginning of the Cold War, the situation has become graver today. Leadership is the first obvious reason of this. But more importantly, the Cold War did not preclude talks and diplomatic channels of communication at any time. With the breakdown of the bipolar structure of rivalry, the stability of the system that balanced the nuclear competition between the superpowers also waned. The avoidance of nuclear war could never be ensured, but efforts to avoid it were certainly always a top priority.
By Washington’s own choosing, it does not see North Korea as a state to be dealt with on equal footing. Washington has no desire to revise its ambition of inducing North Korea to carry out complete disarmament, and neither is North Korea likely to budge from its nuclear ambitions. A nuclear war is still inconceivable in the immediate future, as the US naturally has more to lose if it does happen. The US has a responsibility to keep South Korea as well as Japan, and its own people out 0f danger. No scenario where the taboo is broken can conclude in a way in which these countries will remain safe.
It is therefore crucial for the US to bring China and Russia on the table to conduct talks with North Korea and make a deal that is acceptable for all sides. What is more, as the most powerful state in the current international system, the US has a moral duty to uphold and strengthen the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons that currently exists and push for a world where nuclear war remains unthinkable.
Maryam Zubair is a Research Assistant at the Center for International Strategic Studies. Ms Maryam holds a Masters degree in International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad. Her research interests include foreign policy analysis, Politics of the Middle East and dynamics of the US foreign policy. She wrote her Masters thesis on the US-Iran Detente and its Implications on the Middle East, completed in January 2016.