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