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ON LIMITED NUCLEAR WAR IN THE 21ST CENTURY
By Jeffrey A. Larsen, Kerry M. Kartchner
Stanford University Press Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Limited War and the Advent of Nuclear Weapons
Jeffrey A. Larsen
THE CONCEPT OF LIMITED NUCLEAR WAR IS BUILT ON A much older idea: the notion that wars can be limited at all. The concept of limited war goes back millennia, and is typically associated with one of two approaches: limitations on one's objectives before the outbreak of war, or limitations on the conduct of war once hostilities have commenced. The former requires the combatants to believe they can achieve their goals without resort to unlimited conflict; the latter relates to the medieval concept of chivalry and some of its modern manifestations, such as efforts to limit the destructiveness of armed conflict, through such methods as arms control, international protocols, or tacit understandings. During the Cold War, the concept of limited war was adapted to the consideration of limited nuclear war, which represented a different approach to dealing with the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union.
The theory of limited nuclear war originated in connection with the development of the doctrine of flexible response as the United States and the Soviet Union reached rough parity in nuclear forces, thus rendering irrelevant the dangerous threats of massive retaliation. The search for ever more limited and discrete means of waging nuclear war contrasted with the debate over whether nuclear war could be limited through various means of controlling or containing escalation. Rather than simply trying to prevent the outbreak of conflict through a deterrence strategy that relied on deterrence by punishment, the latter approach focused on deterrence by denial—the ability to prevent an enemy from achieving his military and strategic objectives. This could be done, it was believed, by limiting either the scope of the conflict or the manner in which it was conducted. In short, the United States could decide whether it wanted to control the conflict, or to escalate the level of violence as necessary in order to win it. The problem, of course, was that, as Lawrence Freedman wrote, "It takes two to keep a war limited." Just because one side wanted to keep things limited was no guarantee that the other side would agree. In addition, there has been a distinction between advocates of limited war who believe in the value of deterring an adversary by punitive threats and blows that impose unacceptable, but not ultimate, costs, and those who see the role of denying an adversary his goals by the use of limited military actions.
Why is this subject still important more than two decades after the end of the Cold War? With the emergence of new nuclear powers and nuclear weapon aspirants, the possibility exists that the United States may, in the future, face regional adversaries armed with small nuclear arsenals. In such circumstances, it is equally possible that there will be little prospect that traditional deterrence will prevent such adversaries from employing those arsenals against the United States or its interests and allies. Such adversaries may believe that only the threat to employ nuclear weapons would dissuade the United States from engaging its superior conventional force. An opponent may also believe that it is facing the prospect of regime change, and thus has little to lose from employing limited nuclear strikes against either the United States, its forces deployed in the region, or regional US allies. In other words, even if the United States wants to avoid a limited nuclear war, it may nevertheless find itself in one not of its choosing. Each side gets a vote on how the conflict develops.
Reconsidering the Theory of Limited Nuclear War
The prospect of limited nuclear war has profound implications for US national security strategy, for regional crisis management, global nuclear nonproliferation regimes, and consequence management. While other basic concepts from the Cold War lexicon of strategic theories have been subjected to reexamination in light of the new international security landscape prevailing in the post–Cold War era, the theory of limited war has yet to be fully reconsidered. That is the principal purpose of this book. Most of the literature on limited nuclear war stems from the early days of the Cold War. Authors such as Henry Kissinger, William Kaufmann, Robert Osgood, Bernard Brodie, and others focused on the problem of how to deal with an adversary that had the ability to annihilate the United States in a conflict and with US and Soviet military doctrines that seemed to place all of the nation's eggs in the deterrence basket. If it failed, we were all dead. The lunacy of such an approach to dealing with issues of international security, and the certainty that we would have to fight limited conventional wars again one day, made the search for rational ways of conducting wars under the nuclear umbrella, perhaps even with the modest use of a few nuclear weapons (but not enough to trigger retaliatory Armageddon), a very real and important dimension of security studies from the 1950s through the 1970s.
The most recent literature on limited nuclear war was published in the mid-1980s. With the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s, the subject took a back seat to more pressing issues. Given the rise of rogue states and smaller nuclear powers, however, particularly in geographic regions where the United States is most likely to find itself in a limited conflict in the future, the issue is back.
Defining Limited Nuclear War
The concept of limited nuclear war is surprisingly difficult to nail down. After all, limited war encompasses a spectrum of possibilities, from limits on central war (where the antagonists may choose to limit their objectives in the conflict), to limits within regional conflicts (where the sides may limit the means used to achieve their objectives), to terrorist use of a weapon of mass destruction (where the initiating party will likely have no more than one, or at most a few, weapons, and the responding parties may choose to limit the level of their retaliation). A nuclear war may therefore be considered "limited" in one or more of multiple dimensions:
1. Quantitative, in terms of the numbers and types of nuclear weapons used (sometimes referred to as "intensity" of the conflict).
2. Scope, in terms of the geographic area covered, or the number of countries or other actors involved.
3. Duration, in terms of the time that passes between the first and last use of nuclear weapons in a conflict.
4. Objectives, in terms of the goals of the parties involved. A nuclear war can be considered limited only if one or more of the parties seek limited objectives, or pursue an outcome that is something less than the complete annihilation of the other side's armed forces or its government.
5. Targets, in terms of constraints on the targets one or more parties choose for operational, ethical, legal, or cultural reasons.
Trying to capture all of these important and nuanced concepts on what limits a conflict is challenging. Nonetheless, the following definition serves as the basis for analysis in the chapters that follow: Limited nuclear war is a conflict in which nuclear weapons are used in small numbers and in a constrained manner in pursuit of limited objectives (or are introduced by a country or non-state actor in the face of conventional defeat).
On the Concept of Limited War
The concept of limited war has found expression in several forms. These have included conventions and international laws that proscribe certain actions and clarify the proper treatment of combatants, civilians, and prisoners; a body of just war theorizing that stretches back several centuries; and multiple efforts to mitigate the consequences of military action through protocols and arms control agreements.
Robert Osgood reminded us that limited wars are as old as mankind. "In the history of international conflict the wars that have been truly momentous and rare are those that were fought to annihilate, to completely defeat or completely dominate the adversary." The rise of limited war thinking in modern times is a reaction, he wrote, to the increasing capacity and inclination of states to wage total war. A truly "limited" war requires both sides to pursue goals far short of complete subordination of the enemy's will, using far less than their total military capabilities. Limited war, he wrote, "is not only a matter of degree but also a matter of national perspective."
Ian Clark pointed out that there are two basic issues associated with limits on war: what to limit in order to call a war limited, and the more challenging question, the extent to which a war can be limited while "still remaining the social institution that we recognize war to be." As he put it, "To some extent ... the nature of war, and the form that it takes, is dependent upon our social conception of what is its point."
There has never been an international consensus that placing limits on warfare is a universal good. Sometimes the end really does justify the means, at least to one of the combatants. This point is clear in the history of the debate over jus ad bello (war of just objectives) and jus in bellum (war fought with just means). Since at least the Middle Ages philosophers have argued over the realism of either concept, as well as which should take priority. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, and particularly during the Cold War, the nature of a war was often defined by the means employed to fight it. Hence the use of nuclear weapons made, to some minds, war unthinkable for any reason. This notion has carried over into the post–Cold War era, despite the increase in small wars fought around the world by the leading nuclear superpower and the possibility that one of these might involve a small nuclear power for whom such considerations on limits to conflict may not carry the same level of conviction.
There have always been arguments opposing the limitation of war or its conduct. Opponents worry that by making war less horrific one makes it more likely to occur, and that it may also protract the length and resultant agonies of the conflict. In other words, by trying to inject a little humanity into foreign policy decisions, one might actually increase the level of inhumanity.
The idea that one can place limitations on war arises from one or more underlying causal factors. Those can be based on religion or some other system of common values; they can rely on mutual self-interest; or they can grow out of unilateral restraint in hopes of a reciprocal response from one's enemy. Clausewitz pointed out that war is in fact a political condition, not one where indiscriminate (or "unlimited") violence has a place. The purpose of war, according to this view, "could not be simply to apply maximum force toward the military defeat of the adversary; rather, it must be to employ force skillfully along a continuous spectrum—from diplomacy, to crises short of war, to an overt clash of arms—in order to exert the desired effect upon the adversary's will." Others have argued that war is a legal condition and is, as such, subject to legal rules and restrictions, just as any other human activity. And a third argument points out that as abhorrent as war is, it is still a moral condition that should be subject to moral restraints. Others, of course, argue that the only aspect of war that needs to be considered is that of military efficiency; the attempt to introduce other rules or restrictions is self-contradictory.
There is also the question of whether seeking explicit limits on war may undermine other policy objectives. As Clark summarizes,
At core, there has been an ongoing and unresolved debate as to whether limitation is desirable, with the proponents of humane warfare consistently being opposed by a variety of philosophic arguments ranging from the superior rights of the just party, through the case for making war short by making it nasty and brutish, and to the argument for abolition that regards moderate war as tolerable war. At the same time, the argument about the desirability of limitation in war has been caught up in the diversity of opinions as to why, if at all, it should be considered a worthwhile goal and appeal, on this score, has been made to a broad spectrum of ideological and pragmatic principles.
How to Limit War
Limitations on war may take the form of efforts to restrict the tempo, level of violence, or breadth of a conflict. For example, the parties can agree (tacitly or formally) to restrict the types of targets attacked or the weapons used; they can express their acceptance of less than total victory for either side as a result of the conflict; they can acknowledge special rights for noncombatants, or for wounded or imprisoned combatants; and so on. Traditionally, incorporating limits into an internationally recognized legal framework has been the most common form of seeking agreed restraints on war, yielding a set of laws of war. Richard Falk has listed four primary principles that underlie the laws of war: prohibitions on methods, tactics, and weapons calculated to inflict unnecessary suffering (the principle of necessity); a requirement that methods, tactics, and weapons generally discriminate between combatants and civilians (the principle of discrimination); a requirement that the military means used bear a proportional relationship to the military end pursued (the principle of proportionality); and an absolute prohibition on methods, tactics, and weapons that are inherently cruel in their effects or violate minimal notions of humanity (the principle of humanity).
Most of the wars fought by the United States throughout its history have been limited. This includes the so-called expeditions in Latin America, the wars with Mexico, World War I, and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The only true total wars have arguably been the American Civil War and World War II—and even in those conflicts, despite localized deprivations, most American citizens lived normal lives little affected by the major battles being waged in distant lands.
In general, a war can be called "limited" if it meets one or more general rules. It may be limited in geographic scope, confined to one region. It may not utilize the full military might of one or both adversaries. In fact, as a general rule, in a limited war each side will use the minimum level of force necessary to achieve its objectives. It may remain conventional, not crossing the nuclear threshold. It may limit strikes to certain types of targets. But primarily a war is limited if the objectives for which it is fought remain limited. As Kissinger put it,
A limited war ... is fought for specific political objectives which, by their very existence, tend to establish a relationship between the force employed and the goal to be attained. It reflects an attempt to affect the opponent's will, not crush it, to make the conditions to be imposed seem more attractive than continued resistance, to strive for specific goals and not for complete annihilation.... The characteristic of a limited war ... is the existence of ground rules which define the relationship of military to political objectives.
A limited war can be the result of the disparity in power between the two antagonists; it may result from the inability of one or both sides to provide the logistical requirements of a major campaign; or it can reflect the self-restraint shown by the stronger power whose objectives are modest. This may be the result of tacit or implicit agreements between the parties that they both want to keep the war from escalating. This was a common situation among the European great powers during the balance of power era of the 19th century. They realized that none of the issues over which they skirmished challenged their national survival, there was no revolutionary power trying to upset the international system, and the parties were equally matched in terms of size and technologies. Basil Liddell Hart, one of the modern proponents of limited war theory, understood that one's enemy today might be needed as a friend or ally in the future. There was value in avoiding excessive damage, injury, or insult between adversaries even during unpleasant intervals such as wars. Bernard Brodie agreed with Liddell Hart's analysis. As Brodie put it, both sides were best served by exploring "ways of consciously limiting those conflicts we may be unable entirely to avoid."
Excerpted from ON LIMITED NUCLEAR WAR IN THE 21ST CENTURY by Jeffrey A. Larsen, Kerry M. Kartchner. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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