'Nuke Gaza': The 'Madman' nuclear rhetoric is back again

Why are various politicians in different locations seemingly embracing rhetoric around mass destruction?

'Nuke Gaza': The 'Madman' nuclear rhetoric is back again

The pronouncements of junior ministers in any government normally go unnoticed in the wider world. This truism was recently violated when Amihai Eliyahu, heritage minister in the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, received international attention for a comment he made during a radio interview. Asked about the possibility of Israel resolving the ongoing conflict in Gaza with nuclear weapons, he responded “That’s one way.”

Criticism and recriminations quickly followed, including the suspension of Eliyahu from cabinet meetings by Netanyahu. His punishment was at least in part for publicly acknowledging something the Israeli government has never done before, namely that it possesses an arsenal of nuclear weapons (said to be at least 150 nuclear devices according to former US President Jimmy Carter in a public comment in 2008).

The Eliyahu case could be viewed as an isolated incident if not for other recent examples of politicians seemingly flippantly threatening the possible use of the ultimate weapon. These true weapons of mass destruction have only been deployed twice before in a conflict, both by the United States against Japanese cities in the closing days of World War Two in August 1945. The two atomic bombs, but a fraction the size of many current nuclear weapons, killed over 100,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Before the recent Israeli case, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and some of those around him have garnered considerable attention and generated controversy and apprehension through nuclear threats and speculation over the past two years. At the time of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Putin repeatedly suggested that Russia might use nuclear weapons and later ordered a higher state of alert for his country’s nuclear forces.

In September of that year, he twice alluded to the use of nuclear weapons as part of the conflict over Ukraine. In the first instance, he warned that in the case of a “threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.” Others around Putin, including his Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and his Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, have engaged in their own nuclear threat rhetoric suggesting a coherent and coordinated strategy as opposed to flippant comments. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Friday rejected as "absolutely insane" claims that Moscow may unleash a nuclear war.

Read more: Will the Gaza war push the Middle East to new realism?

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu arrives at a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023

The Russian nuclear rhetoric has been decried by the administration of President Joe Biden, but past US presidents have not been afraid to articulate nuclear bluster of their own. Take Donald Trump, former President of the United States.

Over several years, Trump has repeatedly speculated in private and public about the United States military using nuclear weapons. In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, the Republican Party candidate allegedly asked three times during a briefing why the United States could not use nuclear weapons.

At a meeting in 2017, in the aftermath of which the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, reportedly called Trump a “moron,” he expressed a desire for an expansion of the US nuclear arsenal by ten times its current size. In the same year, the US President repeatedly threatened North Korea in public forums with what amounted to nuclear destruction.

He told the United Nations’ General Assembly that the US was prepared to “totally destroy North Korea” and he warned on social media Kim Jong Un’s regime against menacing the United States as it would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Privately, Trump, to the alarm of his officials, echoed such rhetoric, going so far as to suggest that a nuclear attack by the United States on North Korea could be blamed on another nation.

Privately, Trump, to the alarm of his officials, echoed such rhetoric, going so far as to suggest that a nuclear attack by the United States on North Korea could be blamed on another nation.

Former U.S. President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a 2024 presidential election campaign event in Summerville, South Carolina, US September 25, 2023.

Of course, the North Korean government is hardly an innocent when it comes to nuclear pronouncements. It has repeatedly over several years threatened to go nuclear, including as recently as last month which it did in response to the arrival of an American aircraft carrier in South Korea, the North's hated enemy. Ironically, the American ship was there to help counter the North's perceived military aggressiveness.  

Read more: Israel's conflict management: What could possibly go wrong?

The mass destruction rhetoric

Why are various politicians in different locations seemingly embracing rhetoric around mass destruction? Several possibilities exist. Perhaps in a post-Cold War world and with the memories of Japanese destruction in 1945 increasingly distant, concerns and restraints around nuclear weapons have dissolved. During the Cold War, nuclear weapons received considerable attention, including from organised peace movements dedicated to their elimination.

The end of this conflict did not mean the elimination of the ultimate weapon. Thus, the weakening of limits around nuclear rhetoric is despite the continued existence of nuclear warheads with around 13,000 being held by at least nine countries globally in 2023. Bloody regional conflicts aside, the Cold War was a period of relative stability at the level between the two superpowers from 1949, when the Soviet Union ended the American nuclear weapon monopoly, until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) in which both sides risked ending up in ruins after a nuclear conflict discouraged heated and exaggerated rhetoric because of the potential for such discourses to spiral into an unprecedented level of worldwide devastation.

The decline of the Cold War removed the considerable fear and global focus on nuclear weapons even as these weapons of mass destruction continued to exist. Ironically, it would also occur at time where historical precedent is frequently invoked to justify actions in the present. The Israeli government has, for example, compared its military campaign in Gaza to American operations after the attacks of September 11 and even to American and British bombing campaigns during World War Two.

Undoubtedly, the nuclear chatter and threats are primarily designed for international consumption, although an element might also be intended for domestic political audiences, some of whom may support such tough talk. For foreign spectators, the nuclear threats represent a tool of intimidation, such as Russian desire to discourage continued military support for Ukraine by western nations.

Destroyed buildings due to airstrikes in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, as seen from Sderot, Israel, 04 November 2023.

Invoking nuclear weapons is a way of sending a message to one's foes that will not go unnoticed, not just by the leadership of your opponents but by the public in those nations. The panic buying of Iodine tablets across Europe in March 2022 to ward off the effects of radiation is one example of the impact of heated rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin. It may serve a purpose by leading to public pressure on politicians to moderate their support for Ukraine.

There is an anecdote from the past that might explain the nuclear posturing of the present. It involves deliberate bluster through heated rhetoric to intimidate your foreign opponents by convincing them that your leader is unhinged. During the early days of the administration of President Richard Nixon, such chatter was put out to convince America's enemies that the new president was unstable and thus there was a risk of escalation to the point that nuclear weapons would be used. This organised mayhem became known as the "madman theory."

Whether such threats, either issued without consideration or as an organised practice through a modern version of the "madman theory," represent an actual increase in the possible use of nuclear weapons is another matter. In the aftermath of Russian rhetoric around nuclear weapons and Ukraine, American intelligence has detected no sign of any actual deployment of nuclear weapons by Russia. The danger, however, is in a situation where rhetoric is interpreted not as a threat but as an impending promise. Such a miscalculation could be consequential for those making the threat but for the rest of the world as well.  

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