Sorry for the light blogging of late — as usual, I am writing a lot, just not finishing anything.
I notice this very interesting story by Paul Richter in the Los Angeles Times on deliberations over the Nuclear Posture Review. In particular, Richter summarizes the debate over “declaratory” policy — public statements about the role of US nuclear weapons.
The core debate is between those who want to declare that the “sole purpose” of US nuclear weapons is to deter and, if necessary, respond to nuclear attacks. On the other are those who want to limit the role to “existential” threats — whatever that means.
Richter’s summary of the debate is, more or less, also my understanding.
A core issue under debate, officials said, is whether the United States should shed its long-standing ambiguity about whether it would use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances, in hopes that greater specificity would give foreign governments more confidence to make their own decisions on nuclear arms.
Some in the U.S. argue that the administration should assure foreign governments that it won’t use nuclear weapons in reaction to a biological, chemical or conventional attack, but only in a nuclear exchange. Others argue that the United States should promise that it would never use nuclear weapons first, but only in response to a nuclear attack.
Pentagon officials question the value of such public declarations, contending that foreign governments may not even believe them, said the U.S. officials and others.
During the Cold War, Soviet officials declared that they would use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack. But when Soviet archives were opened, it became clear that “there were scenarios where they would have contemplated first use,” said Charles Ferguson, a former State Department official who now heads the Federation of American Scientists.
The lingering skepticism that resulted could carry over to similar U.S. declarations, limiting their worth, some officials have argued.
A “no-first-use” policy may represent a bigger step than the Obama administration would be willing to take, private analysts said.
Instead, they think the administration might hedge its policy by saying, for instance, that the United States would use nuclear weapons only in situations that threatened its existence.
My view is basically the same as that expressed by Mort Halperin in Survival — an article that draws on work Mort, Arnold Kanter and I have done together at the New America Foundation.
The United States maintains nuclear weapons to deter and, if necessary, respond to nuclear attacks against ourselves, our forces, or our friends and allies.
This is probably the most consequential decision that will come out of the Nuclear Posture Review. It is very important that the President get it right.
The Problem With No First Use
I am temperamentally inclined toward a “no first use” pledge. (I don’t think it would be a huge gain for the United States, though nor do I think it is a huge danger.) But it does suffer from one very specific problem.
As it happens, I don’t think it would ever be in the interest of the United States would initiate the use of nuclear weapons. The late Michael Quinlan, for instance, once said in a meeting that “We do not foresee first use. We do not expect it. We will do everything in our power by our posture to sustain our expectation. But we cannot guarantee” that a situation will not arise that would force us to consider the first use of nuclear weapons.
Sir Michael’s objection, I thought, was quite sensible. Categorical statements are too simplistic for the real world. As a result, others don’t take such pledges seriously. Reassurance must be credible. I often see, in the Chinese case, this particular drawback of a no-first use pledge. Americans and others don’t take it seriously — although I think we should. As a result, Chinese academics and officials often get trapped in silly “what if” games.
Take the case of Chu Shulong, a Chinese academic who ended up in Chinese Military Power for what seems like a relatively innocuous interview:
The Director of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Stratgeic Studies, in an interview with a reporter from Da Gong Bao expressed, China’s promise not to be the first to use nuclear weapons was extremely clear and firm. As of now, their isn’t the slightest indication that China’s government will let go of this promise. ”(I) have not heard any leader on any occasion state China will change or let go of this position. Never.”
At the same time Chu Shulong provided a hypothetical, except in the case of a foreign power launching a full scale war against China, using all of their advanced (precision) weaponry except nuclear weapons, and the Chinese nation were facing the danger of extermination, China may let go of this promise. But he considers the possibility not very great.
As a result, Chu Shulong ended up in Chinese Military Power declaring, “China may renounce [no first use] at a time when the country’s fate hangs in the balance.” A very similar thing happened to Sha Zukang regarding Taiwan.
This is a basic problem when statements are categorical — it is too easy for someone to use a “ticking time bomb” scenario (or Martians using non-nuclear lasers to incinerate elementary schools) that twist the speaker up in knots. The Chinese official or academic defending “no first use” has to either admit that, in a hot-blooded moment, that Chinese leaders might not be especially scrupulous about observing past statements or lamely repeat “China undertakes unconditionally not to use or threaten to use…”
Neither is very appealing.
I’ve had several Chinese participants tell me about a recent Track II meeting in Beijing where they explained China’s categorical no-first use pledge. The American participants, to make the classic point, rather clumsily suggested a hypothetical US conventional attack on China’s nuclear forces.
The Chinese participants freaked. [Perhaps I should say, “were disturbed.”]
The Americans went home satisfied that the Chinese weren’t very serious about no-first use; the Chinese left thinking they had been subjected to a very serious threat of coercion. And perhaps wondering if they should start planning for first-use scenarios. I am repeatedly asked about this interaction and was again during my last trip to Beijing. This particular Track II debacle is going to haunt the US-China nuclear dialogue for years.
I happen to agree with not using nuclear weapons first, but as a declaratory policy it does suffer from the problem that Sir Michael identified.
The Problem with Calculated Ambiguity
On the other hand, it isn’t like I think our current policy of calculated ambiguity is a god’s gift to declaratory policy. For one thing, the US policy isn’t actually an instance of ambiguity — in the sense of statement that could mean different things — but rather the current policy consists of two of logically inconsistent statements.
Our current policy is incoherent, not ambiguous.
As I noted this summer, “calculated ambiguity” often devolves into clumsy brandishing of nuclear weapons which is anything but ambiguous:
Particularly compelling, to me, is [Scott Sagan’s] demolition of “calculated ambiguity” using a case study from the Bush Administration. Whatever the appeal in theory, in real life “calculated ambiguity” degenerates into the clumsy brandishing of nuclear weapons.
I had been mulling a similar case study in a memo using the almost comical efforts to maintain “calculated ambiguity” regarding a possible nuclear strike against the Libyan facility at Tarhuna. The Clinton Administration looked like the Keystone Cops armed with nuclear weapons, which says something when you manage to upstage Muammar al-Gaddafi in a black comedy.
No need to, now. Scott executes a much cleaner demonstration of why “calculated ambiguity” is, to my mind, more trouble than it is worth …
Scott’s case study involved then-President Bush’s April 2006 statement that “All options are on the table” with regard to Iran, which was widely interpreted as a nuclear threat and ended with the UK Foreign Minister Jack Straw calling the idea of a nuclear strike against Iran “completely nuts.”
This is also a declaratory policy fail.
A More Sensible Declaratory Policy
These problems suggest two criteria for a declaratory policy — it must clearly articulate a limited role for nuclear weapons, but those limits should not be categorical. They really reflect a single observation: Declaratory policy must be, in part, designed for ease of execution. If it is too complicated, it may be paraphrased. If it is too simple, it may be shown to be foolish.
One option is to find a felicitous phrase — “last resort” or “existential threats” — that conveys the sense of a commitment, without actually making one. That is the essence of the ambiguity approach. (I happen to think that either formulation would improve on the current approach.)
An alternative — which I prefer — is to talk not about when the United States would use nuclear weapons at all, but rather why we have them.
If you think about it, we make decisions every day about our forces, policies and posture that need to be explained. We haven’t dropped the big one since 1945. So, our declaratory policy ought to defend the actions we do take, not ones we might. As it happens, I believe it is a true statement that the United States maintains nuclear weapons, either largely or exclusively, to deal with nuclear threats.
As for talking about nuclear use scenarios — well, the only way to win is not play! Look, you can always come up with an artificial, hypothetical that would compel the first use of a nuclear weapon against a kindergarten. (The kindergarten is sitting on top of a deeply buried bunker containing the Andromeda strain and there isn’t enough time to evacuate…)
No good can come of speculating on such hypothetical scenarios because the deck is stacked against you. Moreover, there is no reason to play these games, because such unlikely scenarios are irrelevant to our nuclear policy, force structure or posture. The very fact of having nuclear weapons, no matter what the President says, provides the appropriate measure of deterrence against these sort of unlikely speculations.
As a result, I tend to think talking about why we have nuclear weapons is a better approach than trying to find a phrase, such as “existential threats,” that explains when the President might use nuclear weapons. The “existential threats” formulation, in particular, will baffle foreign audiences, who in turn will ask what precisely threatens the existence of the United States and others. This discussion can only go badly. For example, are we saying we would forswear nuclear weapons in the event of a limited nuclear attack that didn’t threaten the existence of the United States? Would a North Korean biological attack threaten the existence of Japan? No good can come of answering such questions, yet declining eliminates much of the advantage in making the commitment in the first place.
It’s much better to state that neither of these cases — nor the truly weird cases like asteroids — have anything to do with why the United the States maintains a nuclear deterrent. United States nuclear policies, forces and posture are not shaped by the need to deter biological weapons or deflect asteroids. That’s the implicit meaning of the President’s statement that the United States seeks the security of a world without nuclear weapons: That all plausible non-nuclear threats can be met with conventional forces.
I happen to think that this is statement of fact about US policy, even if it is not the formal declaratory policy, and that the President should say so:
The United States maintains nuclear weapons to deter and, if necessary, to respond to nuclear attacks against ourselves, our forces, or our friends and allies.
Such a statement, by subtly changing the nature of the debate from use to possession, requires a certain amount of discipline. The President and his advisers would have to refuse to elaborate on its meaning, characterizing the statement as a “statement of fact” about why the United States maintains nuclear weapons. They would need to refuse to engage in “irresponsible speculation about hypothetical scenarios” involving the possible use of nuclear weapons. (You can add, “that have nothing to do with why the United States maintains nuclear weapons, which is…” if you really want to.)
The lone exception to the prohibition of discussing the “use” of nuclear weapons would be the existing negative security assurance — which would be politically calamitous to withdraw. In that case, I would revise to remove the “Warsaw Pact exclusion clause” on the grounds that there is no Warsaw Pact. It might read something like:
The United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon state-parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons that are in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.
And since there are two nuclear weapons states — Russia and China — that the United States needs to address, I would make one last statement, drawn from the recent CFR Task Force co-chaired by Bill Perry and Brent Scowcroft.
With regard to Russia and China, mutual vulnerability (or deterrence) is not a policy choice, but a fact to be managed with strategic stability.
Taken together, I think these three statements would accurately convey the limited role that nuclear weapons play in US security in a manner that would neither alarm allies or comfort potential adversaries.
Update | 10:04 am January 6: Sorry about the truly staggering number of spelling slip ups. I was in a rush. Should be better now.