Left of Launch: Communications and Threat Escalation in a Nuclear Age

Several decades after the end of the Cold War, the world’s nuclear superpowers still struggle to understand the role that amorphous theories of “deterrence” and large, capable nuclear arsenals play in forestalling nuclear war. In furtherance of the status quo, the United States continues to build up its nuclear triad despite the apocalyptic levels of destruction the use of such weapons would entail. Recent rhetoric of some state leaders has reawakened concern over the potentially catastrophic consequences of maintaining a nuclear arsenal. These communications highlight the multi-layered nature of strategic dialogue. Such comments send numerous, and sometimes conflicting signals to adversaries and allies alike. That same rhetoric has also revived questions about the propriety of leaders issuing threats. Is it ever legal to use nuclear weapons in a first strike capacity? If first use of nuclear weapons is not legal, is it legal to threaten to do so? In other words, is it legal to threaten to take action which, itself, a sovereign may not legally take? Once such threats are issued, does the recipient have the right to respond in self-defense? Such concerns have only been amplified by the contentious tone employed by current leaders.

Those committed to preventing, mitigating, and resolving the most violent of conflicts have, traditionally, been able to leverage international cooperation under the rule of law. Unfortunately, recent examples in conflict escalation (both rhetorical and actual) have left many to wonder what role international law plays in fashioning a pathway for peace. Adding to the tension of the modern age is the difficulty of determining the legality of nuclear threats. Do the traditional methods of analyzing a state’s compliance with Articles 2(4), and 51 of the U.N. Charter apply in the context of threat-making, especially when those threats explicitly or implicitly implicate the use of nuclear weapons? Does the inherent right of self-defense include the right to use nuclear weapons? In short, is nuclear war so different from other forms of warfare that traditional legal doctrines no longer apply, or must they be applied in substantially different ways?

The issues at play in the current nuclear dialogue engage classic debates about threat issuance, self-defense, and preemptive strikes. Does international law continue to shape the boundaries of nuclear policy and strategy, or is the world beginning to fall back into a Cold War paradigm? Complicating the current strategy is the emergence of totalitarian regimes and non-state actors pursuing nuclear weapons with zealous vigor. What does the expanding set of complications portend for nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament? Given the current state of rhetoric by sovereign leaders, are such laudable goals even within the realm of the possible? In sum, what roles will strategic communications and the rule of law play in de-escalating nuclear tensions?