No First Use: Arms Control versus Disarmament Perspectives
I have long believed that it is important to disentangle the advocacy of nuclear disarmament from the prevailing arms control approach. The core difference in perspective can be summarized as follows: arms controllers seek to stabilize nuclearism, reserving nuclear weapons for use as deterrent weapons of last resort; nuclear disarmers seek to get rid of nuclear weapons as reliably as possible, and forever; disarmers regard their possession, development, and potential use as deeply immoral as well as dangerous from the perspective of long-term human security.
President Barack Obama ever since his 2009 speech at Prague projecting a vision of a world without nuclear weapons has confused public understanding by straddling the fence between these two incompatible perspectives. He often talks like a potential disarmer, as during his recent visit to Hiroshima, but acts like an arms controller, as in the appropriation of $1 trillion for the modernization of the existing nuclear weapons arsenal over the next 30 years or in NATO contexts of deployment.
There is a quite prevalent confusion among those constituencies that purport to favor nuclear disarmament of supposing that the adoption of arms control measures is not only consistent with, but actually advances toward the realization of their objectives. Such reasoning is deeply confused in my view. It is not just that most formulations of arms control regard nuclear disarmament, if at all, as an ‘ultimate’ goal, that is, as no goal at all falling outside the domain of policy feasibility.
Obama signaled his own confusion in two features of his Prague speech: first, indicating without giving any rationale (there is none) that achieving nuclear disarmament might not be achieved in his lifetime; secondly, avoiding any mention of the legal imperative of a good faith commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament that was unanimously endorsed by an otherwise divided court in the International Court of Justice historic Advisory Opinion of 1996.
Incidentally, the label ‘advisory’ is deeply misleading as this legal pronouncement by the highest judicial body in the UN System is the most authoritative interpretation attainable of relevant international law by distinguished jurists drawn from the main legal and cultural traditions active in the world. For such a diverse group to agree on the legal imperative of disarmament is notable, and for it to be ignored by a supposed advocate who is in a position to act is both revealing and irresponsible.
My view of the tension between the two perspectives can be briefly articulated: arms control measures unless tied to a disarmament scenario make the retention of nuclear weapons less prone to accident, inadvertent use, and unnecessary missions while reinforcing the logic of deterrence and indirectly expressing the view that a reliable nonproliferation regime is the best that can be hoped for ever since the nuclear genie escaped confinement. Such an approach makes the advocacy of nuclear disarmament
appear to be superfluous idealism, at best, and an imprudent
challenge to deterrence and realism, at worst. There is a coherent argument for such a posture, but it is not one that credible supporters of a nuclear zero or nuclear disarmament should feel comfortable with as it undercuts their supposed priority to eliminate the weaponry once and for all, although moving to zero by verified stages. This contrasts with the central undertaking of the arms control community to live with nuclear weapons as prudently as possible, which translates into nonproliferation, safety, prudent foreign
policy, non-provocative weapons development and deployment, and trustworthy crisis management.
Printed below is a recent editorial of the Arms Control Association proposing the American adoption of a no first use policy as a crucial declaratory step in advancing their agenda of nuclear prudence. Its line of argument well illustrates the overall nuclearist logic of the arms control establishment, which also tries to justify its proposal by showing that nuclear weapons are not needed to fulfill America’s worldwide geopolitical ambitions. These ambitions can be satisfied in all circumstances, it is alleged, except a nuclear attack by a nuclear weapons state, by relying on U.S. dominance in conventional weaponry.
Here is a further issue raised: for states that possess or contemplate the possession of nuclear weapons, yet are vulnerable to conventional weaponry of potential adversaries, the implicit rationale of the Arms Control Association editorial is that such states have strong
justifications for retaining, and even for developing such weaponry. In effect, countries such as Iran and North Korea can read this editorial as suggesting that they need nuclear weapons to deter surrounding countries with superior conventional weaponry from exerting undue influence via intervention or coercive diplomacy. In effect, the Arms Control Association no first use position, by treating that the U.S. Government and think tank policy community as its target audience, is undercutting the ethical and political rationale for nonproliferation as a rule of world order. As security is the acknowledged prime value in state-centric world order, an argument justifying nuclear weapons for the leading military power in the world is in effect providing non-nuclear states that feel threatened with a powerful
argument for acquiring a nuclear deterrent.
A final clarification: I have long favored the adoption of a no first use policy on its own merits, including at the height of the Cold War. It not only underscored the immorality and criminal unlawfulness of any initiating use, but if properly explained could be taken as a vital step in a disarming process. As long as no such posture was adopted even by the United States, with its formidable conventional military options, it meant that the potential use of nuclear weapons was never taken off the geopolitical table. This meant, as well, that the nuclear weapons labs were encouraged to envision potential roles for these weapons of mass destruction and design weaponry configured to carry out such missions.
In effect, a nuclear disarmament position also entails a repudiation of geopolitical ambitions to project worldwide military power as the United States has done ever since the end of World War II. This grandiose undertaking has weakened the UN, undermined respect for international law, and subverted democratic institutions within the United States and elsewhere, all while making the country more insecure than at any time in its history and its enemies more bold and aggressive. The common flaw of dominant political actors is to underestimate the will and capability of its militarily weaker adversaries to develop effective modes of resistance. Both the Vietnam experience and 9/11 should have imparted this basic message that the United States was endangering its future (and that of the world) by its posture of geopolitical hubris built on the false belief that the effective agent of change in the twenty-first century is military
dominance. The nuclear dimension of this hubris is particularly dangerous, and ultimately debilitating.
It is long overdue to distinguish arms control from disarmament. Arms controllers have made such a choice, purging genuine advocates of disarmament from their ranks as dreamers. The arms control voice is welcome in government even when their proposals are rejected because they collide with geopolitical goals. In contrast, the voice of disarmers is popular among the peoples of the world. Obama’s Prague speech made such a worldwide social impact, and continues to resonate, because it was widely heard (incorrectly) as putting the United States firmly on a disarmament path.
Unfortunately, after eight years of an Obama presidency it is as clear as ever that it is civil society alone that carried the disarmament torch during this period, somewhat backed by a series of non-nuclear governments that are not complicit beneficiaries of America’s nuclear umbrella (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan). In this spirit, although not always sufficiently clear about the policy implications of their nuclear disarmament agenda, the best vehicle for those favoring nuclear disarmament is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and such initiatives as Chain Reaction 2016 and the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy.
Editorial Published on Arms Control Association (http://www.armscontrol.org); posted June 30, 2016
Take Nuclear First-Use Off the Table
The Cold War standoff that gave rise to tens of thousands of nuclear weapons ended a quarter century ago, and U.S. and Russian deployed arsenals have been slashed through verifiable arms control agreements.
Unfortunately, the risks of nuclear weapons use are still far too high, in part because the policies developed to justify their possession and potential use remain largely the same.
President Obama in 2009 at Hradčany Square Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: White House)
Early in his presidency, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”
On June 6, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes pledged that the president “will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use.”
One very important step would be for Obama to declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Such a decision could unwind dangerous Cold War-era thinking and greatly strengthen U.S. and global security.
Limiting the circumstances under which the United States would use nuclear weapons was a goal laid out by the “Nuclear Posture Review Report” in 2010, which said the United States should pursue the objective of making deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of the nuclear arsenal.
Nevertheless, current policy still leaves several dangerous and destabilizing nuclear weapons-use options on the table, including the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict to pre-empt a real or suspected nuclear attack, to counter the possible use of chemical or biological weapons, or to halt a massive conventional military threat against U.S. forces or allies.
Today, the United States and Russia still deploy thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of bombers, missiles, and submarines. Current U.S. strategy requires that there are enough nuclear forces available to destroy nearly 1,000 enemy targets, many in urban areas, and that these weapons can be launched within minutes of a decision to do so.
Maintaining such a capability plays a large role in compelling Russia—and may soon help to lead China—to field a sizable portion of their nuclear forces in a launch-under-attack mode in order to avoid a disarming nuclear strike. This, in turn, increases the chance that nuclear weapons might be used or dispersed by U.S. adversaries in a crisis.
As Obama correctly said in 2008, the requirement for prompt launch is “a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”
By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States could positively influence the nuclear doctrines of other nuclear-armed states, particularly in Asia. Such a shift in U.S. declaratory policy could also alleviate concerns that U.S. ballistic missile defenses might be used to negate the retaliatory potential of China and Russia following a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack against their strategic forces.
Shifting to a no-first-use policy would not, in any way, undermine the U.S. ability to deter nuclear attack by another state. It is well established that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack, and given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.
Given the overwhelming U.S. conventional military edge, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify—legally, morally, or militarily—the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. U.S. nuclear weapons are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism or to a potential chemical, biological, or cyberattack by state or nonstate actors.
A no-first-use policy would not undermine confidence in U.S. defense commitments to key allies. Even if there were to be a conventional military conflict with a nuclear-armed state, such as Russia in the Baltic Sea region or elsewhere, the employment of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive because it would trigger an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal escalation of nuclear weapons use. As a result, the threat of nuclear weapons first-use to counter non-nuclear attacks lacks credibility.
In remarks delivered in Hiroshima May 27, Obama declared that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Yes, we must.
A U.S. no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, improve the prospects for further Russian nuclear cuts, and draw China into the nuclear risk reduction process. It would put a spotlight on the dangerous nuclear doctrines of Pakistan and North Korea, where the risk of nuclear weapons use is perhaps most severe, and challenge them to reconsider the first-use option.
By encouraging a new norm against first-use of nuclear weapons, Obama could help ensure, for this generation and those to come, that nuclear weapons are never used again.