Nina Tannenwald’s The Nuclear Taboo seeks to explain why the state that invented
and used nuclear weapons during World War Two (WWII) has not done so since.
From a deft blend of theory and empirical analysis comes a big bold argument:
nuclear deterrence alone does not explain the non-use of nuclear weapons by
America since 1945; equally important has been a powerful taboo prohibiting
nuclear use. This impressive book joins other constructivist scholarship in challenging
the realist take on international security, in showing that ideas and identity
matter as much as material power and military things in shaping when and how
states use force.1 It also offers a new interpretation of Cold War history, which up
to now has focused on the role of credible mutual deterrence in discouraging US
and Soviet nuclear use.
In this opening article of the forum I introduce Tannenwald’s concept of the
nuclear taboo, and present the mechanisms by which it works and has evolved.
I suggest the broader significance of, as well as subtle improvements to,
Tannenwald’s fine theory. Tannenwald does an excellent job of demonstrating the
presence and effect of the nuclear taboo in civilian policy. Nonetheless, I find a
number of limitations in the application of the taboo, both in US military beliefs
and practice during the Cold War, and more recently in international law and
civilian guidance on nuclear use developed under President George W. Bush.