I recently ran across a story about “limited nuclear war”. The basic notion is that there is something between “no nukes” and “all the nukes”. The article itself was somewhat interesting, but one quote in it by a politician stood out to me:
There’s one role — and only one role — for nuclear weapons, and that’s deterrence. We cannot, must not, will not ever countenance their actual use.
Now, ignore for a moment the originally posited idea and don’t try to figure out who said it, focus just on these two sentences. What is wrong with them? They are mutually exclusive.
A deterrence that is never carried out is not a deterrent. Think back to when you were a kid. Were you ever told that doing a certain thing or acting a certain way would bring down the wrath of mom or dad upon you? If you knew they would not actually bring down that with, how much would it have altered your choices?
If you say you will never stop your kid from going to the Prom, for example, then how effective is telling them that if they don’t have a 3.2 or better GPA they aren’t going to Prom? Not at all.
Nuclear weapons can be a deterrent for two reasons: 1) their sheer power and effect and 2) an expectation of them being used. If you know that a country with nukes “will not ever countenance their actual use”, are you deterred by them having nukes? Doubtful.
One tactic used by various police departments is to station a cop car to give the illusion of a police presence. In other words the cop car is a deterrent to crime. But what happens when everyone knows is is just an empty shell? It loses any deterrence effect. There is no way to rectify claiming that you’d never actually use nuclear weapons but that they serve as a deterrent.