Ukraine War, March 3, 2022 (I): Would the use of force in collective self-defense of Ukraine automatically lead to World War III?

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Would the use of force in collective self-defense of Ukraine automatically lead to World War III?

The Observer, who is not a nuclear strategist or a military official involved in discussion of these issues, doesn’t know the answer to this question.

However, the question is not a new one, Experts have been studying it for 70 years. Curiously, there has been little public discussion of their analyses during the run-up and course of the current Russian war against Ukraine.

Why could that be?

Could it be that Joe Biden has broadcast his conclusion and announced the U.S. (and consequently NATO) decision to take force off the table, thereby shutting down what should be a very lively debate?

Biden, like Barack Obama before him, appears to have internalized the Russian threat and talking point that any opposition to Russian military action automatically means World War III.

Yet we must ask whether this conclusion merely reflects the emotional position of President Biden, but not necessarily the conclusion of the experts who have studied the issue.

The Observer vaguely recalls that for many years a core tenet of U.S. strategic nuclear doctrine was that the deterrence of nuclear weapons was the only way the U.S. and NATO could defend Western Europe against an attack by larger Soviet and Warsaw Pact conventional forces.

Be that as it may, it is not intuitively obvious that a limited use of military force, e.g., to defend Ukraine by slowing a Russian invasion, to halt the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, or merely to protect the delivery of military equipment and supplies, would automatically lead to nuclear escalation and World War III.

Even if the initial response were a relatively low-level use of a tactical nuclear weapon, logically there would be one or more break points in any escalatory spiral before the use of strategic nuclear weapons were seriously considered.

These are questions which, in any event, experts and others should be considering and discussing publicly.

The problem with the Russian talking point is that it would, in effect, allow Vladimir Putin to commit aggression in Europe, even against a NATO country, without generating a response involving the use of force. In effect, a country employing credible nuclear threats would always win.

Moreover, it seems that acquiescence in the face of nuclear threats such as Putin’s would create an enormous incentive, for any nation which could, to develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Shouldn’t we be having a public discussion of these issues?

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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