Weekly Geopolitical Report – Nuclear Blackmail (February 13, 2017)

by Bill O’Grady

(N.B.  Due to the upcoming President’s Day holiday, the next report will be published on Feb. 27th)

During the 1950s, in the early days of nuclear weapons, there was much discussion about the potential for nuclear blackmail.  The world had recently defeated fascism but the problem of an aggressive and amoral leader like Hitler worried geopolitical strategists.  If Hitler had developed a nuclear weapon, would the war have ended the way it did?  And, if a similar leader emerged and possessed nuclear weapons, would he engage in blackmail by using the threat of a nuclear attack?

As the Cold War evolved, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. (the superpowers during the Cold War) created a workable solution to reduce the chances of a nuclear exchange.  Both parties built formidable nuclear arsenals that had second strike capabilities, meaning that either side could not “win” such a war by attacking first.  By treaty, defense mechanisms against nuclear missiles were limited, reducing the likelihood that either party would conclude it could strike without fear of retribution.  Although the U.S. was not the only free world power to have nuclear weapons (the U.K. and France did, too), and China had developed nuclear weapons within the Communist bloc, the two superpowers generally controlled the decision to deploy a nuclear strike.  In other words, nuclear proliferation was limited and thus controlling the global nuclear arsenal was manageable.

As time passed, nuclear strategists became less concerned with nuclear blackmail.  The world was divided into areas of influence.  The U.S. managed and protected the free world and the Soviets did the same for the Communist bloc.

People usually explain outcomes in terms of narratives.  Stories are powerful tools for helping us understand why outcomes occurred.  Two characteristics often emerge from narratives.  First, the simplest narrative becomes the most powerful.  Second, because the narrative is simple, outcomes can sometimes be seen as inevitable.  A well-developed narrative not only explains why an event occurred but also critically examines the factors that might have led to a different outcome.

The Cold War narrative suggests that nuclear weapons are primarily defensive because of the threat of a second strike and nuclear annihilation.  Thus, unless a nation fears regime change, there is little reason to develop a nuclear weapons program.  However, this thesis assumes that nuclear weapons decisions will always follow the Cold War pattern.  Just because nuclear blackmail did not develop during the Cold War doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future.

In this report, we will define nuclear blackmail and differentiate it from blackmail in a nuclear context.  We will discuss why this didn’t develop during the Cold War but why it could happen now.  We will also analyze how nuclear blackmail might be used as part of coercive diplomacy as well as part of conventional conflict.  Finally, we will examine the likelihood of either form of blackmail occurring in the future and how it may change international relations.  As always, we will conclude with potential market ramifications.

View the full report