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Nuclear weapons and the 1991 Gulf War : nuclear taboo or risk aversion? Cohen, Michael David


Nuclear deterrence theory has neglected to account for the fact that since 1946, states’ in possession of nuclear weapons have refrained from using them in conflicts against adversaries that lack such a military capability. Nina Tannenwald has argued that a nuclear taboo, a normative inhibition associated with the first use of nuclear weapons. has been a necessary component of the causal mechanism that has resulted in such nuclear non-use. An examination of the 1991 Gulf War shows that the nuclear taboo may not have been necessary to cause nuclear non-use against isolated Iraqi forces. While the causal mechanism may have involved the nuclear taboo in a peripheral associative capacity, it is unclear that the nuclear taboo was necessary to cause U.S. nuclear restraint in 1991. Prospect theory expects decisions to be based on the relation of their outcome to a reference point, which usually is the status quo. Positive deviations from the reference point are viewed as gains and negative deviations as losses, and losses hurt more than otherwise equal gains satisfy. The frame of gains encourages risk aversion and the frame of losses encourages risk propensity, and people are more sensitive to changes in assets than net asset levels. Risk aversion appears to have been central to nuclear non-use in the 1991 Gulf War. While the frame of losses prompted President Bush to restore Kuwaiti independence in what could have proven to be a costly war, the frame of gains, perhaps brought about by the success of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), encouraged nuclear restraint. While the lack of evidence inhibits a satisfactory explanation of the causal mechanism that caused U.S. nuclear restraint in the 1991 Gulf War, it is clear that the normative inhibition associated with the first use of nuclear weapons may not have been necessary to have caused such nuclear restraint. The implication of this is that social activism against nuclear use may have little effect; it is unclear that the nuclear taboo effects Presidential preferences regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the fate of the NPT will be critical to containing future nuclear use and proliferation.

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