Nations possessing nuclear weapons have seen them as useful for many purposes. These include classic nuclear deterrence (preventing a nuclear attack), extended nuclear deterrence (preventing a conventional attack on the nuclear nation or allied countries), the fighting of a nuclear war ‘if deterrence fails,’ and a ‘diplomatic’ use in which the weapons are seen as implements of coercive political power. Concerning all these uses profound ethical questions arise. It is the last use which will be the focus of attention in this paper.
I have chosen this subject partly because I believe that it has received insufficient attention from those reflecting on nuclear policies from an ethical point of view. Discussions tend to focus on the use, threat to use, or intention to use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or threat of nuclear attack. The retention of nuclear weapons for such a purpose is far easier to rationalize than is the development of such weapons for extended deterrence, nuclear ‘diplomacy,’ or the actual waging of a nuclear war. Historically, nuclear weapons have been held by nuclear states for all these purposes. In fact, there are natural relations between the functions. When a power possesses nuclear weapons, the ultimate token of military power in the modern world, it is natural that it will seek to use them for purposes less restricted than the sole one of deterring nuclear war. Hence there is a natural development from classic deterrence to extended deterrence and the coercive use of nuclear weapons in the pursuit of national interest. There is also a natural connection between classic deterrence and the development and deployment of nuclear weapons for the purpose of fighting and ‘prevailing’ in a nuclear war. An opposing state is to be prevented from attacking by the belief that an attack would be followed by retaliation. That requires that a nuclear state indicate the will and capacity to retaliate-that is, to use these weapons in a real war if necessary.