Fall 2016

The Nuclear Necessity Principle: Making U.S. Targeting Policy Conform with Ethics & the Laws of War

Jeffrey G. Lewis and Scott D. Sagan

In 2013, Obama administration spokesmen stated that all U.S. nuclear war plans “apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects.” We analyze U.S. nuclear policy documents and argue that major changes must be made if U.S. nuclear war plans are to conform to these principles of just war doctrine and the law of armed conflict. We propose that the U.S. president announce a commitment to a “principle of necessity,” committing the United States not to use nuclear weapons against any military target that can be destroyed with reasonable probability of success by a conventional weapon. Such a doctrinal change would reduce collateral damage from any nuclear strike or retaliation by the United States and would, we argue, make our deterrent threats more credible and thus more effective.

JEFFREY G. LEWIS is Adjunct Professor and Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. His books include Minimum Means of Reprisal: China's Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (2007) and Paper Tigers: China's Nuclear Posture(2014). He is the founding publisher of Arms Control Wonk – a blog on arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation – and a columnist at ForeignPolicy.com.

SCOTT D. SAGAN, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2008, is the Caroline S. G. Munro Professor of Political Science, the Mimi and Peter Haas University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University. His books include Moving Targets: Nuclear Weapons and National Security (1989), The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (1993), and The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate (with Kenneth N. Waltz, 2012). He leads the Academy's project on New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology, and War.

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