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How does existential fear interact with nuclear policy?

INKSTICK Doreen Horschig 22 July 22, Globally, if you ask people “do you support the use of a nuclear weapon?” most people will say “no.” Public opinion polls consistently reflect such anti-nuclear stances and norms. Citizens of EU states that host US nuclear weapons are in favor of a global nuclear weapons ban. Chinese citizens strongly oppose the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances and a majority of Americans think that the very invention of nuclear weapons was bad. Even under the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine War, 85% of Central and Eastern Europeans reported in March 2022 that there are no situations in which using nuclear weapons would be morally justified.

However, this public aversion toward nuclear weapons can erode.

In a recent experimental study that I conducted in Israel, I found that when faced with a threat to their security, respondents showed high support for nuclear use. In light of this, I explored why it is that people might deviate from anti-nuclear norms and become willing to endorse a nuclear strike against a foreign country.

. I found that when respondents are reminded of their own mortality, they are more likely to support a nuclear strike.

In other words, psychological mechanisms explain why people may violate the nuclear norm. Individuals move away from their existing moral principles and resort to an aggressive defense mechanism that they perceive as effective in destroying the root cause of an existential threat.


Israeli support for a retaliatory nuclear strike in a real-life scenario is likely to be even higher than in the theoretical study. First, because the main finding for the support of the use of nuclear weapons in the study is based on a first strike by Israel. If an adversary uses nuclear weapons first, support for a retaliatory strike in response tends to be higher than a nuclear first strike. 

……… the results of the same study surveying Americans showed similar support for nuclear use in the case of an existential threat……………….


Why should we be concerned about public support for nuclear weapons when elites hold the power in nuclear policy? After all, the current debate on gun legislation in the United States shows that public opinion has little to no impact on federal policy. Even though the majority of Americans support stronger gun control policies, few changes have been made. But public attitudes on nuclear weapons do matter for two main reasons, which are intensified by the rise of populism along with nationalist and authoritarian leaders.

First, leaders and war advocates can use the public’s existential fear to their advantage by inflating threats. ……………………

Second, leaders might be more inclined to use a nuclear weapon if they believe they have their public’s support……………………………..Recent research findings also suggest that the public is unlikely to act as a strong restraint on leaders seeking nuclear weapons. Hence, not only can a supportive public embolden leaders to use a nuclear weapon in nuclear-armed states, but also to proliferate in non-nuclear weapons states.

It is essential to educate the public on the realities of nuclear use. People support the use of nuclear weapons because they believe them to have a distinctive military utility. Yet, often conventional weapons are just as effective in destroying an adversarial target (unless, for example, it is a deeply buried weapons storage).

Beyond that, people need to understand the costs and consequences of such a strike. If aversion toward nuclear weapons can easily erode, public knowledge on nuclear weapons needs to be more robust to begin with.

July 22, 2022 - Posted by | Israel, weapons and war

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