Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Survey evidence on 'the nuclear taboo'

An article from last February in APSR, of which I've read only the abstract, concludes, based on an "original survey experiment," that the U.S. public "has only a weak aversion to using nuclear weapons and that this aversion has few characteristics of an 'unthinkable' behavior or taboo."

The cite is: Press, Sagan & Valentino, "Atomic Aversion: Experimental Evidence on Taboos, Traditions, and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons," Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 107:1 (Feb. 2013):188-206.

What to make of this? Hard to know without having read the article, but one (elitist) inference might be that this is further evidence of the U.S. public's backwardness (for lack of a better word) when it comes to security issues.      


hank_F_M said...



The Just war doctrine/law or war Jus in bello is about how one conducts a war. The choice of weapons is covered by proportionality

Basically proportionality means that one should not use means that are disproportionate to the military objective. A subjective judgment call which international courts have been relctant to second guess.

A practical extension is that when a commander has a choice of two or more options that will accomplish the military objective proportionally he should choose the one that causes the least human suffering (friendly noncombatant and enemy).

The problem with a norm against a type of weapon is that it makes a decision before judgment can be exercised. Potentially causing more destruction than necessary to accomplish the objective.

Granted that in most situations a nuclear option is likely to be the most destructive choice. But can we say always? I think that where it as a possibility the analysis must be made not fall back on a norm athat effectively, if unintentionally, says "I don't care."

As a side note the introduction of smart bombs precision guided weapon, and yes drones, are have been presenting possibilities to accomplish military objective that would have previously required nuclear weapons, which has reduced the possibility that nuclear weapons might be used. Which I think is doing much more good than any norm can.

{The US policy is that first use of nuclear weapons will be made to preserve our national existence or the national existence of a major ally. I think most countries that possess nuclear weapons have a similar policy.}

The best discussion I have read is from Kenneth Anderson

LFC said...

Hank-Sorry don't have time for an esp careful comment rt now but the linked article has to do more w public attitudes toward the 'taboo'. The 'taboo' is a term used in some of the literature -- eg Nina Tannenwald, whom I have mentioned a couple of times before -- to describe and possibly partially explain the EMPIRICAL FACT that no country has used nuclear weapons since '45.

I think you are confusing two different meanings of the word "norm." 'Norm' can be used in an EXPLANATORY sense -- eg there seems to be a norm not to urinate in public, that's why most people don't do it -- or in a PRESCRIPTIVE/NORMATIVE sense -- eg a parent telling a child "Now Jimmy, don't pee in public b/c you *should* not." The key word in the latter sentence is SHOULD.

The linked article, based on the abstract which is all I've read, has to do w the explanatory sense/force of norm, whereas your comment has to do w the prescriptive sense.

In other words, the issue for the article is not whether there SHOULD be a legal or more informal norm against any use of nuclear weapons at any time, but whether public attitudes in the U.S. conform w apparent elite beliefs that such a de facto or informal norm exists.

Sorry, this may not be too coherent but I'm pressed for time now. May come back later.

LFC said...

P.s. On the "should" question: I don't think a general prescriptive norm vs nuclear use conflicts w proportionality in any serious way.

Virtually all prescriptive norms can contemplate exceptions for rare cases, and in the almost inconceivably rare case where it seems as if proportionality might require the use of nuclear weapons, one can go ahead and do the proportionality analysis. The existence of a prescriptive norm does not preclude doing the analysis in, as I say, that v. rare case.

LFC said...

Speaking of int'l courts (see the second graph of your comment), there is an ICJ Advisory Op. against the use of nuclear weapons. Fwiw.