The Strategic and Moral Dimensions of Nuclear Intervention


by Lieutenant Colonel John Mark Mattox, US Army

Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe


The military experiences of the post-Cold War period can be summarized in these words by Retired Admiral David Jeremiah, former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff::  “This is a world in which we’re not at war and we’re not at peace. . . . The peace that we’re in is the absence of major war, but that isn’t peace as we know it.”[1] Prominently featured in the world that Admiral Jeremiah describes are military interventions for a wide variety of reasons, such as peacemaking, peacekeeping, and humanitarian undertakings of various kinds.  Often, these operations are realized in the form of small unit patrols, security checkpoints, small arms collection and destruction projects, land mine clearing operations, disaster relief operations, the building of roads, schools and hospitals, the protection of voter polling places, etc. 

However, the mention of post-Cold War military interventions like these rarely conjures up images of mushroom-shaped clouds.  That is because one of the fundamental assumptions of the post-Cold War period is that the possibility of conflict involving nuclear weapons is a thing of the increasingly distant past.  Unfortunately, the events of September 11, 2001 shook the foundations upon which that assumption rests.  Those events demonstrated, among other things, that the asymmetries that typify warfare in the age of interventions include much more than fluid front lines.  Since that day, statements by non-state actors—not to mention actions by states in south Asia—have highlighted the reality that there still are those willing to use nuclear weapons if they perceive it to be in their interest to do so.  Indeed, the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction could prove to be the greatest possible asymmetry of the age of interventions. 

The resulting paradox is that the world of nuclear weapons was a lot simpler during the long years of Cold War than it is today; for, whatever the uncertainties of the Cold War era, several things seemed to be a good deal clearer then:

First, it was clear who possessed nuclear weapons, namely, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and China.  Today, however, it is far from clear who might end up having nuclear weapons.  On the one hand, the world now has seven nations known to possess nuclear weapons (the five previously mentioned plus India and Pakistan).  On the other hand, there also is at least one undeclared but likely nuclear state (Israel), another that formerly possessed the technology to construct a nuclear weapon (South Africa), and, of greatest concern, a host of nuclear aspirants (to include North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and, perhaps most menacingly, non-state actors).  Moreover, some of  these nuclear aspirants similarly aspire to possess chemical and biological weapons.

Second, during the Cold War, the targeting scheme for the world’s nuclear weapons also was quite clear: the Soviet nuclear arsenal was targeted on the Western Alliance and the nuclear weapons of the West were pointed at the Soviet Union and her satellites.  This bi-polar arrangement has given way to a far less tidy world in which terrorist organizations seek to obtain nuclear weapons and to target any number of places or things for any number of reasons.

Third, during the Cold War, it was reasonably clear whose finger was on the world’s nuclear triggers.  With the possible exception of China (which really was not considered to pose a nuclear threat to the West anyway), the nuclear powers expended great effort to reassure each other that they had made virtually foolproof provisions to preclude the possibility of unintentional launch.  Moreover, they worked to ensure that in the event of a crisis, the appropriate red telephones were in place to enable communication, hopefully to defuse the situation, or in the worst case, to deliver the bad news.  Today, however, the rush by nuclear aspirants to acquire nuclear weapons might not be accompanied by a corresponding sense of urgency to assure potential adversaries that the command and control arrangements are adequate.

“But is there really so great a need to worry?” one may wonder.  “Have not all of the nuclear nations decreased the size of their nuclear arsenals?”  “Has not much of the world’s land mass (at least in the Southern Hemisphere) been covered by some form of nuclear free zone treaty?”  The answer to all of these questions is, of course, “yes,” but that affirmative response does not imply a corresponding increase in the stability of a very unstable nuclear world.  This is so, in part at least, because of a nasty little piece of legislation that no nuclear treaty has succeeded in repealing: the law of conservation of matter.  The tons of weaponized or a weaponizable nuclear material produced during the Cold World era has not merely disappeared into thin air.  It is still out there; but now, no one is really sure where all of it is.  Thus, even if a state or non-state actor is not technically equipped to produce weapons-grade nuclear materials, more such material could be made available to interested buyers now (perhaps on the black market, perhaps from countries that are strapped for cash and have nuclear material to unload) than has been available at any time since the dawn of the nuclear age.

“Unthinkable” long has been the word applied to the nuclear scenario.  Of course, in the Cold War days, “unthinkable” did not mean that which could not be conceived, but rather that which was devoutly hoped would not happen.  That meaning really has not changed; the only thing that has changed is that, in the post-Cold War era, it no longer is fashionable to think about the unthinkable.  That is where we, as students devoted to thinking, come in.  It seems reasonable that we who are interested in the moral issues surrounding military intervention should pause to think about the “unthinkable” possibility of nuclear intervention and pose some sobering questions:

· First, under what circumstances might the prospects of a nuclear intervention be entertained?  Alternatively put, what politico-military circumstances might be sufficient to induce a nuclear state, an alliance like NATO, or perhaps even a non-state actor to use a nuclear weapon or weapons as part of a military intervention?


· Second, what form might such interventions take?


Finally, there is a third question that should be of particular interest to us:


· What are the moral ramifications of a nuclear intervention?


The purpose of these remarks is to entertain these questions.  However, I wish to emphasize at the outset that the responses offered should be understood merely as part and parcel of a philosophical inquiry by an interested observer whose day-to-day responsibilities involve work in nuclear policy planning, and not as a policy statement on behalf of any nation or international organization.  Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the information contained herein was derived from classified sources.


As with any philosophical inquiry, we need some premises from which to work.  I offer the following assumptions:

· First, that an intervention can occur in at least two ways: either as a third party involving itself in the military activities of two or more belligerent states or as an external entity involving itself in the internal affairs of another state.


· Second, that we already have a satisfactory (and affirmative) answer to the question, “It is ever morally acceptable to intervene in the affairs of other nations?”


· Third, that since the United States and her principal allies have renounced the use of chemical and biological weapons, either for first use or in retaliation, the tools at their disposal for use in military interventions include conventional weapons, nuclear weapons, or some combination of the two.  Note that, inasmuch as a nation or non-state actor possesses nuclear weapons, there is no logical basis to exclude the possibility of their use.


· Fourth, that while interventions are not necessarily undertaken to protect what a third-party state or non-state actor might consider to be a supreme vital interest, they certainly could be.


This latter point is particularly significant because nuclear weapons always have been associated with the protection of supreme vital interests.  Thus, if military interventions can be undertaken for the protection of supreme vital interests, then it seems odd to exclude the possibility of nuclear weapons use from interventions of that kind.

Of course, as with any philosophical reflection, if one rejects the premises, then there really is nothing to discuss.  However, for those who would be willing to allow these premises, we turn now to the three questions raised at the outset.

The first question:   “Under what circumstances might the prospects of a nuclear intervention be entertained?” In attempting an answer to that question, it is useful to keep in mind that states or non-state actors may aspire to acquire nuclear weapons for a wide variety of reasons, some of which might bear little resemblance to reasons familiar to nuclear policy makers in the West.  For example, unlike in the Cold War days, they may have no interest at all in acquiring nuclear weapons simply because the United States has them.[2]  Rather, their motives may be “numerous and overlapping, ranging from status, to regime survival, to use as tools of aggression against neighbors.”[3]  Hence, it seems odd to dismiss summarily the idea that certain actors in the international community might not be motivated to use their nuclear capability for interventional purposes.  Actually, it is not that difficult to imagine several plausible scenarios:

· A conflict between nuclear states, say India and Pakistan, has already reached nuclear proportions, and China intervenes with nuclear weapons on the side of Pakistan.


· A conflict involving states actively pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction, say, Iran or Iraq, and some state friendly to the West, has resulted in significant casualties due to biological or chemical weapons use, and either attempts to stop their use by conventional means have been unsuccessful or conventional weapons were deemed to be unable to provide a proportional response.

· A state (such as Israel, perhaps) is attacked by multiple regional powers with chemical and biological weapons, faces what Walzer calls a “supreme emergency”[4] in which its very existence is threatened, and there is no time for the deployment of conventional forces in the quantity that would be required to end the conflict.  Israel requests the United States or, perhaps, NATO, to intervene by nuclear means in order to enable its survival.


· As a variation on this same theme, China attacks Taiwan with either conventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction.  Taiwan appeals to the United States for nuclear intervention because, again, there is no time to introduce conventional forces in the required quantity to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty and preserve its existence.


· A resurgent Russia, without any meaningful conventional capability, feels the need to assert its pseudo-superpower status and concludes that its only choice is to use its nuclear arsenal to intervene in an area it considers to be in its sphere of influence (say, in an India-Pakistan or China-Taiwan conflict).


· A state of concern—a rouge state—is known to have developed a toxin whose use absolutely cannot be permitted.


· Some unexpected shift in the balance of world power produces grave risks for the stability of the free world.


For those who suppose this latter point stretches things beyond the bounds of reasonable hypothesis, let us recall that the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and numerous others all at one time or another asked rhetorically and smugly, “Who out there possibly could disrupt the stability of our world?”  Let us recall that during the twenty-one year period between 1918 and 1939, millions upon millions of people who had just lived through “the war to end all wars” never seriously considered that their world was about to be turned upside down again—and the world of 1939 did not include nuclear weapons.

Consider also the well-worn hypothetical that used to make the rounds in undergraduate ethics classes back when students still were talking about nuclear weapons:  “A remote village in China is discovered to be infected with a particularly virulent, hardy, and contagious strain of the Black Plague.  According to the world’s top epidemic experts, the one best and only sure solution for avoiding worldwide contamination and catastrophe is to destroy the village with a nuclear weapon.  All other courses of action entail very high risks of spreading the disease which itself poses a very high risk of wiping mankind from the earth (or perhaps of taking millions of lives before it can be contained).  Should a nuclear power intervene to resolve the problem?"[5]  (Let us note parenthetically that one also might profitably ask whether the moral-philosophical considerations relevant to the question would change if that “village” were London or New York, rather than a remote Chinese village).  If this hypothetical seems implausible, there is a variation on this general theme that some nuclear policy planners believe to be quite plausible:  Consider the case in which a biological weapons laboratory or storage area experiences the catastrophic failure of its containment mechanism and nothing less than a nuclear device could generate heat sufficient to destroy the deadly toxins and prevent their spread.

Of course, since many of the world’s nations have renounced the use of biological weapons, some might claim that these latter hypotheticals have outlived their usefulness.  However, as history teaches, renunciations sometimes have a seductive quality about them that invites complacency.  It never was either in the national interests or within the economic capability of most of the signatories to the current international treaties on chemical or biological warfare to produce weapons of mass destruction.  Hence, should the world really feel any safer since, for example, Tonga has renounced the use of biological weapons?  The nations that are at issue are precisely those that aspire to possess weapons of mass destruction.  Moreover, these same states repeatedly have demonstrated their unreliability when it comes to upholding treaty commitments.  Worst of all, the non-state actors who now menace the world cannot be said to consider themselves constrained by any treaty obligations at all!

The second question:  “What form might a nuclear intervention take?”  Again, a several target descriptions seem plausible:

· a nuclear demonstration in an uninhabited area coupled with an ultimatum for immediate cessation of hostilities involving the use of weapons of mass destruction;


· a nuclear strike on weapons of mass destruction production centers;


· a nuclear strike on stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction materials in a single spot, whether for storage or for delivery; or as already alluded to,


· a nuclear strike intended to destroy an uncontrollably spreading biological hazard.


In this regard, there is another important dimension to the issue that sometimes gets overlooked.  It is that there exist some targets for which nuclear weapons constitute not only the most appropriate attack mechanism, but indeed the only currently effective attack mechanism.  Unfortunately, technical justification of this claim not only would take us far afield, but also would raise issues not appropriate for discussion in an unclassified forum.

There is yet another particularly grave and sobering side to the nuclear intervention coin, namely, the question of how rogue states or terrorist organizations might elect to intervene in the peacetime affairs of states by using nuclear weapons.  What influence, for example, might a well-placed nuclear device in midtown Manhattan or central London have on U.S. foreign policy?  What if an advanced rogue state launched a nuclear device into the upper atmosphere and destroyed critical (but unhardened) communications satellites in low earth orbit?  In short, it is not difficult to imagine that a nuke-toting rogue state or terrorist organization would conceive of the use of a nuclear weapon as a policy tool.  And why not?  Whatever tactical, operational, or military-strategic value nuclear weapons may have, they are, first and always, political weapons, and their use ultimately the continuation of politics by other means.[6]  Nuclear weapons specifically, like military interventions in general, are intended to influence the tide of regional or world affairs.

It is likewise worth noting that even the threat of nuclear weapons use also could be used as a forceful and effective interventional tool.  While the threat of the use of any kind of military force—conventional or otherwise—could be made with the intent to influence political outcomes, the emotions associated with any overt or implicit but unmistakable threat to use nuclear weapons are such that they could, in carefully crafted circumstances, express what Sun Tsu referred to the “acme of skill”:  winning a war without fighting.[7] 

            Now for the issue most directly relevant to the present forum: the morality of nuclear weapons use in the case of intervention.  To begin with, suffice it to say that, with any attempt to answer this question, all of the old Cold War questions about the morality of nuclear weapons reassert themselves.  One very vocal camp produces some easy answers to the effect that nuclear weapons are immoral by their very nature because, they say, it is impossible to employ them in an appropriately proportional and discriminate way.  However, such easy answers utterly ignore the reality that the nuclear “genie” is “out of the bottle” and that merely wishing nuclear weapons away is no solution at all. Granted, at very least it can be said that nuclear weapons are immoral in the same way that war is immoral, to wit: it would be better if all war ceased and if all nuclear weapons disappeared.  However, the fact is that for the present, we are faced with the reality of both and hence, as moral philosophers, must consider how to cope with present realities.

Therefore, what indeed is the morally appropriate response by the West to the large-scale use of chemical or biological weapons or to any use of nuclear weapons? Questions surrounding the moral status of nuclear weapons are anything but settled, and this is certainly true as pertaining to the issue of military intervention by nuclear means.  To illustrate this difficulty, (although acknowledging that legal pronouncements are not necessarily reliable guides to morality), it is instructive to consider certain legal conclusions reached by the International Court of Justice.   In 1996, the United Nations General Assembly put before the court the following question:  “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?” The presentation of this question to the Court was appropriate because:

· there is a total absence of any express prohibition in international law on the use of nuclear weapons;


· there can be no legally (or, for that matter, morally) recognizable opinion from even the numerous General Assembly resolutions condemning nuclear weapons;


· there is an implicit acceptance of nuclear weapons within the context of deterrence by the community of states;


· the inherent right to self-defence in response to an attack is never denied, even in the nuclear scenario; and


· certain reservations to several nuclear-free zone treaties allow for the possibility of nuclear weapons use.[8]


The decision of the court provides some interesting insights into the matter of how much work needs to be done before the true moral parameters surrounding nuclear interventions can be clearly established.  To begin, the majority was unable to say “whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.”[9] This opinion, issued three-quarters of a decade after the end of the Cold War, hardly closes the door on the question of nuclear weapons use.   The court also concluded, among other things, that there “is in neither customary nor conventional international law any comprehensive and universal prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”[10]

In sum, two facts seem to be quite clear: 

· first, that the risk of a nuclear intervention by some state or non-state actor certainly exists and


· second, that moral limits of the permissible use of nuclear weapons in military interventions remains an unresolved (but neither irrelevant nor unimportant) issue.

What, then, is to be done?  First and foremost, we must not rule out the possibility that nuclear weapons could be used—either by friend or by foe—as tools of intervention. If, for example, Iran, Iraq, or a terrorist group were to detonate a nuclear device in, say, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Israel, would a Western nuclear intervention be morally justifiable, and if so, upon what grounds?  If not, would any lesser response be militarily or politically appropriate?  Indeed, in this scenario, what purpose would a conventional response serve?  On the one hand, if it were to prevent escalation beyond the nuclear threshold, a conventional response would be, by definition, too little too late. On the other hand, the question remains of what purpose a nuclear response would serve beyond merely playing “tit for tat.”  In any case, the formula that students of moral philosophy must bear in mind on this point is:  “The age of interventions” plus “the existence of nuclear weapons” equals “the possibility of nuclear intervention.”

            Second, and in a similar vein, we must consider the moral dimensions of nuclear weapons use as part of an intervention to stop the use, either preemptively or otherwise, of chemical or biological weapons.  Indeed, would a conventional response to the large-scale use of chemical or biological weapons by rogue states or non-state actors be either militarily or morally adequate?

Third, we must weigh the trade-offs involved in declaring that using nuclear weapons for interventional purposes is categorically beyond the pale of moral acceptability.  Granted, the claim that any kind of weapon, policy, or anything else has deterrent value is, and always will be, inferential in nature.  This is so because the whole idea of “deterrence” is really a psychological construct: one is deterred only if one feels deterred.  Nevertheless, this much is certain: if nuclear weapons have any deterrent value at all, then whatever deterrent value they may have for crises that call for military intervention on an overwhelming and devastating scale will be lost completely if their use in military interventions is categorically renounced before the fact.  Moreover, as the events of September 11th illustrate, there are some cases in which no weapon—conventional or not—can be said to have deterrent effect.  The long-standing assumption has been that the primary purpose of nuclear weapons is to preserve deterrence.  However, if nuclear deterrence were to fail, is it not possible that such a failure might invite multiple actors in the world community to consider the propriety of nuclear weapons use?

Fourth, we must take seriously the concern that a bankrupt and conventionally impotent Russia[11] may, at some future point, feel compelled to use nuclear weapons as tools of military intervention.  This may seem surprising in light of the fact that a recent study by The Armed Forces University of the Federal Republic of Germany assessed Russia to have a zero percent chance of conducting a successful defense west of the Urals against NATO. [12]  Think of it: a zero percent chance!  A zero percent chance is an outcome that most military planners, who are trained to worst-case every scenario, would be loath to postulate unless evidence to support the claim were overwhelming.  Indeed, if that assessment is correct, it begs the question as to why the West should be concerned about the military actions of Russia any more than it should be concerned about the military actions of Tonga.  However, there is at least one relevantly significant difference between Tonga and Russia:  Russia has nuclear weapons—probably the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.  Thus, as one commentator on the subject has noted, “the poor state of Russia’s conventional forces necessarily means a greater reliance on strategic nuclear weapons in their military strategy and, consequently, a much lower threshold for resort to nuclear weapons.”[13]  If Russia does not have a conventional capability such as would enable it to intervene in world affairs, what might she be tempted to do with her nuclear arsenal in circumstances where she regarded her military intervention as vital to her interests?

Fifth, we must consider the moral dimensions of nuclear weapons use as part of an intervention to stop the use, either pre-emptively or otherwise, of weapons of mass destruction by rogue states.  Indeed, is it the case that a conventional response to any use of weapons of mass destruction—particularly on a large scale—by rogue states would be either militarily adequate or morally responsible?

Sixth, we must consider the particularly knotty moral problem of responding to terrorists who have elected to “intervene” in the internal affairs of a bona fide state by detonating a nuclear weapon on that state’s soil.  If the responsible party is unknown, then to pick up the pieces as well as possible may, in fact, be the only morally permissible thing to do.  However, what if the responsible party is known?  Is it possible that a utilitarian calculation might yield the conclusion that a nuclear response to that intervention is warranted?


Admittedly and regrettably, these remarks are long on questions and comparatively short on answers.  However, there is one theoretical point concerning which these reflections on the issue of nuclear intervention might prove to be of immediate value to this forum, and that pertains to the question of the morally justifiable limits of military interventions as such.  If, indeed, it is the case that third parties cannot, on moral grounds, intervene militarily in the affairs of states with nuclear weapons, then it follows that moral permission to conduct military interventions is not unlimited.  Moreover, while, on first blush, one might be tempted to conclude that the nuclear threshold is, therefore, the limit of moral permissibility for military interventions, that conclusion does not impose itself as a matter of logical necessity. For, nuclear weapons might prove to be morally impermissible for use in military interventions for reasons other than the mere fact that they are nuclear weapons (or perhaps more to the point, for reasons other than the alleged impossibility of their employment in ways that are neither disproportional or indiscriminate).  Pursuit of this question could perform for moral philosophers the double service of shedding additional light upon the actual moral limits of military interventions of any kind and upon the moral status of nuclear weapons themselves.

With the end the Cold War and the declaration by political leaders and by the media of a “peace dividend,” there began a process of subtle social conditioning that led many to the convenient and happy conclusion that nuclear weapons were, for all practical purposes, relics of the past. Why, then, should we concern ourselves with nuclear weapons today? Because they exist.  As funny as that may now sound, let us not forget that that the foundational pragmatic argument for nuclear disarmament is that if a nation does not have nuclear weapons, it cannot use them; if it does have them, it might.  Of course, we are all aware of the great efforts that many have made and continue to make to reduce the number of weapons of all kinds—nuclear and otherwise—and for this all can be thankful.  Nevertheless, nuclear weapons still exist by the thousands, and because they exist, there also exists the logical possibility that they could be used in any number of military undertakings, to include interventions.  Perhaps this is why that not one of the declared nuclear powers has undertaken unilaterally and completely to divest itself of nuclear weapons.

As leaders of nations become farther and farther removed from the Cold War conditions that forced them to consider in advance, and in excruciating detail, what they would do if called upon to decide whether to use nuclear weapons, their need to rely upon competent military advice on the pros and cons of nuclear employment will become more and important.  Moreover, given the moral considerations surrounding the use of nuclear weapons in interventional settings or otherwise, the political leadership will best be served by military leaders whose advice is informed with a keen grasp of the moral dimensions of the problem as well.  Obtaining that grasp is a useful and important expenditure of effort worthy of moral-philosophical reflection, and one that stands to provide a great service to nations committed to the pursuit of a peace ultimately free from the risks posed by weapons of mass destruction.


[1] Kathleen T. Rhem, “Advisory Panel Proposes Sweeping Personnel Changes,” Washington, American Forces Press Service, June 15, 2001.


[2] “U.S. Nuclear Policy in the 21st Century:  A Fresh Look at National Strategy and Requirements,” Executive Report (Washington:  National Defense University Center for Counterproliferation Research and Livermore:  Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Center for Global Security Research, July, 1998), p.12.


[3] Ibid.


[4] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 2d ed. (New York:  Basic Books, 1994), chapter 16.


[5] I regret that I do not know who originally posed this hypothetical scenario and cannot, therefore, give proper credit.


[6] See Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 87.


[7] Sun Tsu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (London:  Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 77.


[8] I am indebted to Mr. Max Johnson, Legal Advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, for his insights on the Court’s decision.


[9] International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion concerning the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Paragraph 105.  Internet.  Available online at, accessed 8/7/00.


[10] Ibid.


[11] I am indebted to U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Ryan, Allied Command Europe, for his helpful insights on matters relative to Russia.


[12] Frederick P. A. Hammersen, “The Disquieting Voice of Russian Resentment,” Parameters, Summer 1995, pp. 39-55.  Internet.  Available online at, accessed 8/21/01.


[13] Walter Parchomenko, “The State of Russia’s Armed Forces and Military Reform,” Parameters, Winter 1999-2000, pp. 98-110.  Internet.  Available online at , accessed 8/21/01.