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A nuclear strike might not prompt the reaction you expect

What if Russia used a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine? There has been plenty of speculation as to whether this might happen, or how we should limit the chance that it does. But less has been said about how to react should Vladimir Putin decide to launch a nuclear strike.

I’m not talking about major nuclear war, when those questions might be moot. Instead consider that the Russians deploy a tactical nuke, the Western coalition splinters due to fear of further strikes, and Russia keeps part of Ukraine as Putin claims a daring victory. The battle lines ossify. Putin’s likely rhetoric notwithstanding, it would fall somewhere between a Russian win and a Russian loss.

What does that world look like, and how should we prepare for it?

Until recently, my view was that any actual use of a nuclear weapon, no matter the scale, would dramatically change everything. Nuclear use would no longer be considered taboo, and the world would enter a state of collective shock and trauma. Other countries around the world would start frantically preparing for war, or the possibility of war.

But recent events have nudged me away from that viewpoint. For instance, I have seen a pandemic that arguably has caused about 15 million deaths worldwide, yet many countries, including the U.S. haven’t made major changes in their pandemic preparation policies. That tells me we are more able to respond to a major catastrophe with collective numbness than I would have thought possible.

I also have seen Trumpian politics operate through the social media cycle. Former President Donald Trump did and said outrageous things on a regular basis (even if you agree with some of them, the relevant point is that his opponents sincerely found them outrageous). Yet the rapidity of the social media news cycle meant that most of those actions failed to stick as major failings. Each outrage would be followed by another that would blot out the memory of the preceding one. The notion of “Trump as villain” became increasingly salient, but the details of Trumpian provocations mattered less and less.

Might the detonation of a tactical nuclear weapon follow a similar pattern? Everyone would opine on it on Twitter for a few weeks before moving on to the next terrible event. “Putin as villain” would become all the more entrenched, but dropping a tactical nuclear weapon probably wouldn’t be the last bad thing he would do.

To cite the terminology of venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, the tactical nuclear weapon might stay “the Current Thing” for a relatively short period of time.

Maybe the potency of the nuclear concept, and its instantiation in the actual slaughter of innocents, would create more long-lasting trauma than this, but I am no longer sure.

We don’t know how many people such a weapon would exterminate, but it’s quite possible that it would kill only a small fraction of the number that have died in the war overall. Russia could either use a small nuke or avoid aiming it at a densely populated area. And it already is the case that Roe v. Wade debates are pushing the Ukraine war out of the forefront of our consciousness, at least in the U.S.

The nuclear strike probably would have foreign policy consequences across the broader world. For instance, more countries might seek to acquire nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Those events could become the new outrages, subsuming Putin’s tactical nuke deployment in a broader wave of condemnation. In other words, worries about nuclear war might replace opprobrium directed at Putin’s individual act.

The administration of President Joe Biden faces options, including in the realm of communications. One is to let this process operate and allow the world not to freak out so much about the tactical nuclear deployment, which might end up being seen as just another event in a long and bloody war. Many people will feel, perhaps correctly, that the same simply cannot happen to them. Even if you think we ought to instead punish Putin severely, this may not be possible if the NATO coalition has fractured out of fear.

The downside is that we would be normalizing nuclear weapons use while also encouraging Putin to continue in his depredations.

The alternative is to speak repeatedly about Russia’s nuclear outrage and to keep the attention of the world focused on it as a special and uniquely evil event. The risk in doing so is that we would elevate Putin’s rebellion against Western norms and raise his supposedly heroic profile among those who support him. If you talk about a tyrant but don’t punish him, he may end up all the stronger. Furthermore, it isn’t obvious whether “trending on Twitter” would support such a Biden strategy in the longer run.

What if they gave a nuclear war and no one came? Or at least no one squawked too loudly? We should start to give this matter some thought.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of economics at George Mason University, he hosts the Marginal Revolution blog and is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives and Winners Around the World.”