So far there have been two nuclear strikes against populous areas world wide, those being Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, while tests and threats have been somewhat common, there has never been a nuclear attack. As such there has never been any reactive need to discuss punitive damages against a state or entity that is found to be responsible for a nuclear attack. MAD pretty well assured during the cold war that the US and Russia kept their fingers of the big red button, and the world has been (Relatively) peaceful since the fall of the soviet union.

That being said, there are now at least two entities that are actively seeking nuclear armaments for the purposes of war. The Islamic State has stated it can buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan (dubious that any nuclear armed nation would be willing to sell their armaments) and North Korea has stated several times in the past month that it could "Destroy US Cities in a just ball of righteous fury" (slightly paraphrased). Neither of these entities seem to be willing to play nicely with the rest of the international community. Not to say it's likely, but has there ever been any discussion of what punitive damages can be taken against a country or entity that is responsible for a nuclear attack?

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    For North Korea, this would be covered by the usual war reparations concepts; in the case of IS, it would be a civil suit unless it becomes a recognised government. The US doesn't exactly have a spotless track record on playing nicely with the rest of the international community either - but historically, few nations do.
    – Phil Lello
    Mar 30, 2016 at 19:11
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    It seems unlikely that this is necessary in these cases, insofar as the targets are both the U.S. which will extract its punitive damages the old fashioned nuclear way. Even most non-nuclear states would retaliate conventionally if attacked, and many of them fall under the U.S.' nuclear umbrella anyway. May 3, 2016 at 19:56
  • I took out the part on discussion. That makes the question unanswerable. May 10, 2016 at 19:58
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    Reparations are normally imposed by victors on losers in wars in treaties entered into after the war is concluded.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 31, 2022 at 0:01

1 Answer 1


The punitive damages to North Korea would be “Total Annihilation”

James Mattis, who at the time was speaking as the Secretary of Defense, said United States’ response to a North Korean nuclear strike would be “the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea.” The implication is that they would retaliate with a nuclear strike of their own that would completely destroy North Korea, e.g. the “Assured Destruction” in MAD without the “Mutually” part.

ISIS is already on its way to not existing

ISIS isn’t recognized as a country by anyone, and no longer has territory, thanks to a concerted effort to wipe them out conventionally that already exists. It’s hard to threaten someone with less than total destruction when you’ve already committed to their total destruction.

Treaties with Punitive Damages for Nuclear Strikes are a Self Defeating Idea

Generally, fewer nuclear strikes are desired instead of more of them. Right now the cost of a nuclear strike is “a powerful country will retaliate and completely annihilate you.” A treaty with a punitive damage portion would lower the costs of a nuclear strike to whatever the punitive damages specified in the document are, which is presumably not total annihilation as that would make it impossible to collect the damages.

  • "Total Annihilation" would be widely regarded as a crime against humanity; any response out of proportion would be illegal. Mar 12, 2020 at 18:13
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    @ReinstateMonica-M.Schroder It's not a crime against humanity to retaliate against someone else's nuclear first strike upon you. It's pretty much the policy of every country in the world that such a scenario is the one legitimate time to use nuclear weapons.
    – Joe
    Mar 12, 2020 at 19:04
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    @Joe See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law;" Mar 12, 2020 at 21:40
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    There would certainly be some circumstances in which use of nuclear weapons would be a war crime (e.g. over an allegedly violated free trade agreement), although I'm not convinced that use in retaliation against as use of nuclear weapons against your country would qualify.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 31, 2022 at 0:00
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    @StuartF: That's a pretty toothless argument, given that literally anything can be argued to have military/defense value.
    – Vikki
    Feb 26, 2022 at 5:06

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