The Tradition of Non-Use

29 August 2011


The “tradition of non-use” refers to the non-use of nuclear weapons since the initial use of nuclear weapons to bring an end to the Second World War, which, as I have observed elsewhere, could as well be called the First Nuclear War. This tradition of non-use is striking, and perhaps even historically unprecedented. I cannot think of another weapons system produced in such great quantity and maintained the ready for use, that nevertheless remained unused for better than sixty years.

The possible exceptions to this would include other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The traditional triumvirate of WMD includes nulclear, biological, and chemical weapons. As we know, chemical weapons were used many times during the First World War, though to little strategic effect. During the Second World War, stocks of chemical weapons were available, but despite the “total” character of the world, both Axis and Allies chose to observe a tradition of non-use of chemical weapons. Biological weapons are more difficult to pin down because of their historical precedent, but biological weapons in their contemporary form — i.e., in the form of weaponized biological agents stockpiled as a strategic deterrent — have been treated much like chemical and nuclear weapons.

With the first appearance of WMD in history, these technologies were part of a natural and logical process of escalation, which involved doing with other means what had already been done with conventional means. This was especially the case with nuclear weapons, which allowed for the destruction on cities simply and cheaply, although the destruction of cities had already been accomplished by more costly and more labor- and material-intensive methods. There was no reason not to use WMD once they become available, and there were many reasons to use them. And so they were used.

Like the transition from armor and shock weapons to gunpowder and cannon, the transition from conventional weapons to WMD was gradual, but with a much faster and steeper growth curve once science-driven technology began making WMD available in a systematic way. At some point this gradual transition came to be viewed in hindsight in terms of before and after and either/or — with the systematic use of the weapons system equated with apocalypse, cataclysm, and extinction. The incremental introduction of WMD was retrospectively perceived as a pivot point. That is to say, with the vision of nuclear annihilation vividly in the minds of everyone, we came to view the contemporary world as the Axial Age of Weapons Systems.

Growing apart: allopatric speciation

The doctrine that emerged from the Axial Age of Weapons systems was the tradition of non-use. However, it ought to be remarked that WMD had strategic use, so that their tradition of non-use was a doctrine of substrategic non-use. This strategic use coupled with operational and tactical non-use had a self-perpetuating character that isolated WMD from other weapons systems. Strategically, WMD proliferated, yet tactically and operationally they had no place in warfighting. Despite some limited attempts to create tactical nukes for use in theater, these efforts dwindled and the withered away under pressure to create fully strategic nukes. This constitutes a kind of allopatric speciation, in which weapons systems were forced apart in their adaptation to a a role that emerged in competition with other weapons systems. These weapons systems grew apart.

With the emergence of the Devolution of Warfare, the speciation of weapons systems encountered changed environmental conditions that favored conventional weapons and selected against WMD. This should not surprise us. It is one of the lessons of history that weapons systems must be fielded and put into use if they are to be used effectively. The role of strategic weapons systems guarantees that they will be insulated from this kind of effective use derived from experience. The more that they grow into their role — i.e., the more absolutely destructive they become — the more useless they become, and the more useless WMD become, the less likely that they could be employed effectively in combat operations.

The only role for WMD is not to be used, and so the doctrine of non-use makes them even more useless over time. Why, then to nation-states pursue WMD so relentlessly? Because their substrategic non-use has been coupled with their strategic use, and on a strategic level of isolation of WMD that has occurred as a result of the speciation of weapons systems has led some to the conclusion that only WMD can deliver on strategic ambitions.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “The Tradition of Non-Use”

  1. I think you would be very interested in Virilio on war. But I have the feeling I mentioned this to you before?

    • geopolicraticus said

      You’re right — you have mentioned this, and I have mentioned that I’ve been looking for copies of Virilio’s books. It’s my intention to look into his thinking, but I haven’t gotten that far yet.

      Very best wishes,


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