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The actual use of nuclear weapons was unthinkable for the major powers Assignment

The question invites an analysis of the period that the Cold War created, that of nuclear conflictual stalemate. Within the essay I shall attempt to show that with little dispute the statement is markedly one of accuracy. The Soviet Union and the United States never resorted to nuclear warfare during their bipolar stand-off, and I shall have to assess why this happened. Certainly there are many glaringly obvious reasons which shall be identified.

Initially I shall concentrate on the environmental risks associated with nuclear war. A consequence of this is the intensification of public opinion, which will be explored. The role of treaties in the Cold War and in the contemporary political situation is also an important contribution in the idea that countries are actively discouraged from entering nuclear war. Subsequently, this leads onto the issue of deterrence in the treaties ratified. Roskin and Berry have illustrated further consequences of warfare that countries would be considered to avoid. I shall try and conclude whether the reasons that the USSR and the USA conceived to not go to war apply in the twenty first century, and if nuclear warfare is more likely in a hegemonic system, rather than a bipolar system, especially in light of the new security dilemma post September 11.

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Nuclear Winter

Results of the dangerous consequences of nuclear warfare could precipitate into a nuclear winter. This is the extremity of possible circumstances, however devastation is possible and this could bring about two waves of effects. Evidently from the only use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were over 100,000 civilian casualties. Kegley and Wittkopf ascertain that a nuclear war in the future, even if only a tiny fraction of warheads was used, would result in an expected freeze that would occur in the earth’s climate from the fallout of nuclear weapons use.

This could result in the blocking out of sunlight and destroying plant and animal life that survived the original blast (Kegley and Wittkopf, 2001, 513). Interest groups have highlighted, as mentioned previously, that radiation sickness could cause long term sickness problems such as cancer, which would strain on all country’s health resources. The preponderant issue here is that it is unlikely a nation state, or perhaps even an NGO terrorist group, would serve to threaten the world’s climate for the sake of winning a territorial dispute.

The Role Of Pressure Groups

Public opinion upon a government’s actions in foreign policy is often quite contentious, especially when propaganda plays a part in trying to influence the public. Hollywood films created an atmosphere that the evil empire was that of the USSR. However, not all Americans or citizens of the world were enamoured with the use of nuclear weapons. As the Harvard Nuclear Study group identified in the midst of the 1980s reaffirmed Cold War, there was a growing concern from public interest groups that emphasised the total inadequacy of medical care after a nuclear attack (Harvard Nuclear Study Group, 1983, 6). Surely if America had seriously considered initiating nuclear war, then contingency plans would have been put in place.


The potential escalation that nuclear weapons and their use provided meant that forms of prevention were used to try and balance the system between the Soviet Union and the USA. A predominant treaty was ratified between the two spectrums of the superpowers. Mutual Assured Deterrence (MAD) substantiated that the actual role of nuclear weapons in warfare was terrifying. As Kegley and Wittkopf observe, MAD assumed the military potential for death and destruction in nuclear exchange (Kegley & Wittkopf, 2001, 518-519). The treaties recognised that both powers had the possibility to demolish the other therefore the equality of each states potentiality was recognised, and simultaneously was the need to avoid nuclear conflict. The USA was also observed to recognise the real threat that the Soviet Union was capable of, having been rather arrogant in believing their economic hegemony made them dominant.

A further conception of treaties from 1969 focused on the curtailment of nuclear arms. With an economy that was depressing the USA was keen to reduce nuclear spending, though needed assurances that the USSR would reciprocate these actions, otherwise the Soviet Union could potentially become a military nuclear hegemony. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) focused on this issue, and brought about a decreased spending of the superpowers on their military weapons. These negotiations were ‘to freeze offensive weapons and promote balanced verifiable limits on strategic nuclear weapons’ (Kegley & Wittkopf, 2001, 519). Clearly this limits moves to nuclear warfare.

In the era following on from the Cold War a Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992 was held to ban the production and possession of chemical weapons. This was concluded after years of negotiations. 167 states signed the treaty however there were dissenters who included Israel, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq (Goldstein, 1999, 272).

In this era the superpower was supposedly extinct and proliferation had lead to smaller states having nuclear weapons. If we are to conceive from the statement that the real use of nuclear weapons would never take place, why did these countries fail to sign the treaty? The advent of proliferation brings questions as to the suitability of certain states, or even Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), to hold nuclear weapons. It is true that over forty years of the Cold War produced a military deadlock, however some middle-eastern cultures do not regard human life as valuable as the West. Will nuclear weapons, once used as an offensive deterrence, now actually be released for their real use? The climate is changing, especially post September 11. Chemical weapons have been emitted in America in the recent Anthrax scares. There were not mass fatalities, however the tide is turning. Weapons of mass destruction are more widespread than ever and subsequently more likely to be used in the contemporary political atmosphere. The next century will prove crucial in this issue.


A major assumption based on the role of nuclear weapons is that of deterrence. The goal of deterrence is to prevent the outbreak of war by using nuclear weapons as a threat of force. Thus a society will not be offensive if their actions will be countered by a damaging action (Mingst, 2001, 162-163).

The ‘second-strike capability’ (Kegley, 2001, 518) of a country is also an actor in the theory of deterrence. It is unlikely that a country would retaliate at one nation state’s threat of nuclear war if they were aware that their supply of nuclear warheads was insufficient in comparison to the adversary. I do not believe that a country would initiate attack if a second strike could wipe out a nation state’s military and civilian strongholds.

Kenneth Waltz is a leading theorist on this subject. As cited in Sagan, Waltz is clear and confident in his position that nuclear weapons have been given a bad name. His assured prediction sees a nation will be determined from attacking even if it believes that there is only a possibility that its adversary will retaliate, therefore the probability of major war among states zero (Sagan, 1993, 261-262). To an extent I do believe that Waltz is right in his address. However, I believe he is too focused on the role of nation states. His approach is rather utopian and fails to address the rise of the NGO. I do not believe a network like Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda would be threatened by the consequences of nuclear warfare.

Consequences of Nuclear Warfare if Initiated

Roskin and Berry have identified a number of key potentialities if nuclear war was ever began. If the oil exporting countries were to be involved in nuclear war there is the overt implication that the world economy would be depressed. Further, there is a risk of escalation. Conflicts are contagious and affect the interests of bystanders. A victor of a conflict would be a security threat to other states. In the end also, there is a prominence that nuclear warfare would be difficult to terminate (Roskin and Berry, 1999, 247-249). A Pandora’s Box would thus be opened, and almost impossible to close.

To address Roskin and Berry’s arguments, I do believe that the Western countries, reliant on the middle eastern exportation of oil, are cautious in their approach to nuclear warfare in this region. As previously addressed, the Western civilisations are so distinct from those of the middle east. Nuclear war would not be initiated by the Western cultures due to the necessity of the oil resource and further, the unpredictability of the middle east in their retaliations. Key nation states from the middle east have not become members of treaties whereby nuclear weapons are identified in each state, and their limitation is replete.

Approaching the second point, war may spiral out of control in that alliances and treaties bind other nation states to act with those they are unified with. Again I must reiterate, the middle east is an unknown area in relation to their nuclear capabilities. It is unlikely war would be initiated by this lack of knowledge. The third and final point is difficult to approach due to there being no knowledge of the matter. Until there is a nuclear war, which I do not believe will happen in the near future, I think it is very tough to address. As Sagan asserts, ‘political relations between governments may improve so that there are no immediate fears. However, there are concerns that states will not always have friendly governments’ (Sagan, 1993, 275).


Decisively, there are numerate arguments as to the costs that initiating nuclear war would contemplate. The advent of nuclear warfare is unknown, and that is its greatest risk. Nation states have avoided such conflict due to the effect that the world environment could endure and they have to respond to interest groups and their concerns. The role of treaties and deterrence in seeking anything but nuclear conflict is clearly supported by my evidence. If the USSR and USA had been adamant on launching nuclear war, the conception of treaties to avoid and desiccate the advancement of nuclear warheads would not have occurred. Evidently, if nuclear war was instituted the world would be vastly changed from how we know it now.

An uneasiness for the world order now can be attributed to globalisation. NGOs have been aided by the global world compressing and becoming integrated, to the extent that it is they and not nation states, who are the real power players in the anarchical world. The rise of terrorist groups and nation states unincorporated into the Western dictation of how things should be done pose a threat, especially in the twenty first century. The illustration of September 11 is an example as to the dangers of nuclear warfare.

This was not a nuclear act, (excluding of course the anthrax scares) yet had profound nuclear induced consequences for the international system. America’s assured position is being challenged and refuted by the al-Qaeda network and its associations. Considerations now have to be given to the possibility that nuclear warfare is increasingly closer. The cosy, balanced situation that the bipolar Cold War produced is now distinct. The era we are in is now unfamiliar with the possibilities that are lurking. The tide has turned in the opposite direction, and its consequences are abundant.

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