Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. representative to NATO, suggested that Russia is violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and suggested the U.S. and NATO forces might have to “take them out.” This lead to all sorts of questions as the phrase suggested a preemptive strike against nuclear forces, recalled cold war tensions, and brings up a host of nuclear diplomacy issues. For the sake of soothing the matter she had to walk back the idea about taking out Russian missiles, but it doesn’t mean she was wrong. It does sound incredibly scary to talk about “taking out” nuclear sites, but the nuclear diplomacy language of force is a much needed factor that can’t be disregarded.
A preemptive first strike is one of the most important features of nuclear diplomacy. It offers the attraction of winning a nuclear war in a single stroke. The first strike hits all of the enemy’s assets before the missiles can be launched with devastating effect. Because of the tempting power of a first strike, both nations worked toward having a counterstrike capability. This included hardening silos and having different methods of delivery such as bombers and submarines. With a counterstrike capability it would produce a deterrent that makes the first strike seem less attractive. The counterstrike capabilities produced a rough parity, where both sides avoided using nuclear weapons because of the mutually assured destruction that would happen if either side used them. This became the often mocked MAD policy that dictated foreign policy during the Cold War. An occasional stink about a missile gap and the introduction of new technologies, such as more powerful bombs or better delivery systems, produced a response and counter-response that increased nuclear arsenals around the world. Finally, in the 80s the world and its two leading superpowers talked about arms reduction that dismantled some of the apparatus that developed over 50 years of tension.
This is why the comments from Hutchinson are poignant for a number of reasons. The comment about “taking out” Russian missiles was both right and wrong. When a nuclear power is violating its treaty obligations, placing missiles that can reach vital American bases and allies, it is a dangerous threat that can either be solved through diplomacy or a first strike. If the first one fails then the second recourse becomes more likely and needed. Focusing too much on the diplomacy ironically makes force more likely. For example, when President Obama took military options off the table in negotiating with Iran, he weakened his bargaining position. The threat of a first strike does recall the Cold War fears of mass destruction. But it’s an important part of nuclear diplomacy, particularly regarding Russia. Their actions suggest a reckless disregard for the international order and tendency to actively undermine the sovereignty of nearby states; when words fail, force becomes a justified reaction.
By stating the truth at an inopportune moment without tact, Kay Bailey Hutchinson committed what is called a Washington gaffe. Russians violating the nuclear treaty is a dangerous trend that needs to be nipped in the bud with the language of nuclear diplomacy, including a possible first strike with conventional weapons.