Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy
Yogesh Joshi ·       

The nuclear age has confronted decision makers with a conundrum: how to synchronize nuclear weapons with the use of force in international relations. The history of the Cold War highlights this dilemma. Even though the USA had a clear monopoly on atomic weapons till 1949, it was unable to take advantage of this asymmetry during the Berlin blockade. Despite the Soviets attaining nuclear capability in 1949, the Americans had the advantage due to its possession of the Hydrogen bomb and in overall numbers. But, it needed to fight a war of attrition and settle for a political stalemate in the Korean War.  George Kennan’s concept of containment provided the bedrock of US foreign policy to confront the Red menace, but the Soviets instigated the Hungarian uprising and the West could do nothing. Clearly, for the first ten years of the Cold war, nuclear weapons and foreign policy appeared to be incongruent. Why, asks Henry Kissinger.

Henry Kissinger, in his monumental work; Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, confronts the nuclear dilemma head on. For him, the challenges of the nuclear age are very different form the past. First, nuclear weapons provided belligerents with an excess of firepower. Unlike the wars of the past that were restricted by the dearth of resources and ability to project power, nuclear weapons have obliterated all constraints on war limitation. To think of a total war- a war in which total capitulation of the enemy is desired- is quite unthinkable since total war would mean complete annihilation. Why would any country whose national survival is threatened resort to nuclear weapons? If they are used, would nuclear war achieve anything?  Nuclear weapons dovetailed with the concept of total war according to Kissinger, leads to situations where the will to fight is paralyzed. Second, if excess power, which nuclear weapons symbolize, leads to paralysis of will in projecting force, then the Clausewitzian dictum of war as a continuation of politics by other means is invalidated. However, in the anarchic realm of international politics, where the principle of sovereign equality rules supreme, and there is no overarching authority to settle disputes, the resort to force and economic sanctions are the final instruments available to states for pursuing their political goals. Due to this impasse, foreign policy is doomed to failure. Third, and of some significance is the fact that, in the nuclear age, creating a balance of power does not need allies. What it needs is nuclear weapons. Since the politics of alignment becomes anachronistic, so does the institution of diplomacy. Internal balancing, to use Kenneth Waltz’s words, becomes the norm in the nuclear age.

The implications of the technological revolution were made more precarious by the political revolution which the end of WWII witnessed. The flourishing of communism, for Kissinger, was fundamental to understanding what the nuclear age holds for America. Unlike the territorial balance of power issues that plagued the kingdoms of Europe in the 19th century, the two super powers were engaged in an ideological conflict. The Soviet Union being the revolutionary power, according to Kissinger, had a fundamental advantage in the nuclear age over a status-quo power like the USA. This was because a power dissatisfied with the existing international order has a greater propensity to take risks. Since deterrence is essentially a psychological phenomenon, this inclination for risk-taking leads to a reaction by the status-quo state by challenging the risk taking behavior of the revolutionary power. However, the fear of nuclear catastrophe can compromise the will to react on the part of the status-quo power because it is satisfied with the existing order.  Hence, for Kissinger, the Soviet Union can effectively utilize the space between all out nuclear war with USA and a limited local confrontation on the periphery, which the status-quo power would not wish to fight, out of the fear that the war might get nuclearized.

If these are the challenges of the nuclear age, the key to resolve them lies in strategic doctrine. According to Kissinger, the “task of the strategic doctrine is to translate power into policy”. However, for Kissinger, strategic doctrine is the area where the US lagged behind. The challenges of the nuclear age which confronted its decision-makers in Korea and Hungary were creations of this deficiency. According to the US strategic doctrine, as expressed in the “New Look” policy enunciated by Dulles, atomic arsenals were to be used against the unambiguous threats of the communist bloc against the free world. The doctrine of massive retaliation was designed to induce deterrence in the mind of the belligerents by threatening unacceptable punishment. However, the fundamental question remained: how do we define this unambiguous threat. Was crossing the Yalu River by the Chinese an unambiguous threat? Or was the suppression of the Hungarians by the Soviet tanks? The answer was hard to find. This is the classic dilemma of nuclear red lines. The threshold for massive retaliation eluded definition: a clear result of the atomic stalemate in the mid-1950s, as the US was now susceptible to Soviet nuclear counter-attack.  Kissinger wrote that, in this situation, "our notion of aggression as an unambiguous act and our concept of war as an all-out struggle have made it difficult to come to grips with our peril.”Clearly, it was not possible to translate nuclear power into political power.

However, the malaise lay deeper. The doctrine of massive retaliation was inadequate to handle different types of threats but, by emphasizing the unambiguity of threat and massive response, it sought the most extreme course of action. In other words, it tried to convert all conflicts into total wars. As Kissinger explains the effect of such extreme thinking was that, “The more stark the consequences of all-out war, the more reluctant the responsible political leaders will be to employ force.” This overemphasis on totality of war had also created fundamental problems within the force structure of the US military. Following the importance of the Air Force in WWII, and no other means available to carry out the nuclear threat (missile development was still in its infancy), the largest chunk of defence budgets went to the Air Force which believed that nuclear retaliation was its exclusive preserve. This led to much infighting between the services. Considering the importance of nuclear weapons in budget allotments, each service began developing a hypothetical role for them selves to ensure massive retaliation leading to a duplication of weapon systems and combat roles among the services.

The solution suggested by Kissinger is a strategic doctrine which “provides for the widest range of challenges.” In fact, Kissinger was trying to build what later came to be known as the doctrine of flexible response. However, Kissinger’s emphasis was on limited wars. For Kissinger the biggest challenge of the nuclear age was to employ nuclear capabilities to achieve political ends, and to reinstate the relationship between force and diplomacy. Limited Wars could provide the way out. For Kissinger, the nature of conflict in the nuclear age was highly diffused, which necessitated a spectrum of responses rather than the one single strategy of an all-out war. Limited wars, in fact, provided the link between physical power and political will. By responding proportionately to threats, deterrence can be made more credible since it would inform the Soviets that the US is ready to run the risk whenever the Communists seek to threaten. By creating a ladder of responses, the onus is placed on the adversary to stop escalation.

Kissinger goes beyond the concept of limited wars which were, until then, considered to be conventional in nature. Introduction of nuclear arms into the conflict did not automatically mean total war. For Kissinger, this de-linking was fundamental for evolving an effective strategic doctrine. Fighting Soviet aggression in conventional terms had been tried in Europe and the Korean Peninsula. However, it was clear that this kind of a strategy was expensive and provided clear advantages to the Soviets, since their conventional capabilities were enormous. According to Kissinger, the need was to incorporate the element where the US had clear upper hand which was in the domain of nuclear weapons.

The fundamental premise of limited nuclear war is based on the assumption that avoidance of an all-out nuclear war is mutually beneficial for both sides. A “common and overwhelming interest in preventing the conflict from spreading,” as Kissinger puts it, can allow belligerents to keep the conflict limited. Kissinger is quick to point out that a limited war could remain limited to the extent that the national survival of both the sides is guaranteed. Short of a threat to national survival, any other result would not force the belligerents to resort to a Nuclear Armageddon. This is because a political settlement would be a much better bargain than complete nuclear annihilation. However, this common interest needs to be supplemented by many other factors. Kissinger identifies three of these prerequisites. First, defining threshold conditions beyond which any side would resort to an all-out nuclear confrontation. This, in modern parlance, is called the nuclear red lines. Nuclear signaling therefore becomes critical and so is the institution of diplomacy. According to Kissinger, the enemies need to make each other understand what they mean by limited nuclear wars, and what limitations they are ready to observe. Second, according to Kissinger, the need is to develop a framework where limited nuclear wars can actually be fought. This necessitated an agreement among enemies where values and ideologies are separated from the art of war fighting, so that even small victories and defeats should not be couched in existential terms. Thirdly, political leadership should prevail over the military compulsions. This was because, in the fog of war, militaries cannot decide the difference between tactical victories and political goals. By their very organization, armed forces are meant to fight decisive wars. In a limited nuclear war, it is the political element which decides the length and breath of the military effort.

Such was the nature of the task Henry Kissinger undertook during the heyday of the Cold War. In fact, limited nuclear wars became fashionable for international relations experts. A lot of work was done on this concept by Robert Osgood and Hermann Kahn, to name some. However, the basic contradictions of limited nuclear war persist as was evident in the confrontation between India and Pakistan in Kargil. The basic problem with limited nuclear wars is that it assumes complete rationality in the ‘Other’. It presupposes that the ‘Other’ would do exactly what one expects it would do. This problem is most evident in the task of defining nuclear red lines. How would the votaries of limited nuclear war adjust to the fact that states would like to shift their nuclear thresholds according to the developing situation? If Pakistan lowers its atomic threshold, would India be ready to call the bluff by pursuing its limited war strategy? The inhibitions are mutual, and there is no way out of this vicious circle. Another important factor to be taken into account is the nature of domestic politics. Its pressures and compulsions may not allow a political settlement to take place, and could force the war to be taken to its logical extreme. Finally, how would militaries be controlled despite the fog of war? Wars have their own dynamics and are seldom controlled by extraneous forces.

Limited nuclear war is an extreme expression of nuclear optimism.  Though the dawn of nuclear age has brought an uneasy peace in international relations; this logic cannot be taken to its farthest end.

(The first part of the title of the book review is taken from a paper by Bernard Brodie titiled ‘Unlimited Weapons and Limited Wars’, The Reporter, 18 November 1954)