The costs of this change will be enormous. To alter the U.S. deterrent from vaporous nuclear threats to concrete promises of conventional war will require reinvestment in our military forces – and real investment, in guns, boots, and personnel, not exotic weapons systems that will never see battle. It also means a recommitment of purpose on the part of the American people, who of late have withdrawn from the world rather than poke the various nests of snakes that sooner or later will threaten U.S. and allied security. “Kicking the can down the road” is now the meme for U.S. foreign policy, but we’ve already seen the results of that short-sighted approach: the Clinton administration declared an empty victory over North Korea in 1994 and just over a decade later Clinton’s successors found themselves facing a nuclear-armed regime run by sociopaths.
It is time to put away the nuclear crutch we’ve relied on since the end of the Cold War. Real threats require real solutions, and rogue leaders considering the development or use of nuclear arms against the United States need to be spoken to in the only terms they understand: if they use a nuclear weapon, they will precipitate a war with the most powerful alliance in the history of mankind, one that will end with their own deaths from a soldier’s bullet, a bomb from the sky, or perhaps even at the end of a hangman’s noose raised by their own people. There is no nuclear alternative, and we must not shirk either the moral or strategic necessity of finding a deterrent and a strategy that actually will work in the increasingly brutal jungle of the twenty-first century.
Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and a professor at the Harvard Extension School, and the author of No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (Penn, 2014), from which this article is adapted. The views expressed are his own.