Nuclear No First Use and President Obama’s Legacy

Posted by ap507 at Aug 19, 2016 12:30 PM |
Dr Andrew Futter and PhD student James Johnson discuss the Obama Administration’s nuclear legacy

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The Obama Administration is currently discussing a number of proposals to secure the President’s nuclear non-proliferation legacy in his last few months in office. Despite the hype which surrounded the 2009 Prague Speech, in which the President sought to revive the idea of nuclear disarmament, and the successful negotiation of a new strategic arms control agreement with Russia in 2010, many feel that the “global zero” agenda has stalled markedly in subsequent years. As a result, the Obama team are desperate to find a policy or set of initiatives that will help secure his legacy, especially as he is plagued by challenges on other policy fronts.

One idea that has arisen is for the U.S. to declare that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict (a so-called no-first use policy). No sane American president would contemplate ordering a first nuclear strike against another state – let alone on a nuclear-armed one – so why reserve the option?  Advocates of a no-first use policy argue that as weapons of the last resort, nukes are only good for deterring others; and using these weapons for any another purpose would cast the U.S. as a belligerent aggressor. Moreover, doing so would incentivise other states (notably Russia) to relax their fingers on the nuclear button, and in turn, convince non-nuclear states that resorting to nuclear solutions is unnecessary.

Other possible options under consideration by the White House include extending the New START agreement with Russia; seeking a ruling at the United Nations against nuclear testing; taking U.S. nukes off ‘alert status’ (if the U.S. is not planning to use them first then why have primed for immediate use?); and cutting back on plans for modernising US nuclear forces (especially a new nuclear armed cruise missile, which according to media reports,  Obama does not seem convinced the U.S. actually needs).

Critics on Capitol Hill have criticised a volte-face on nuclear modernisation on the grounds that any radical changes would undermine the post-Cold War nuclear umbrella (or ‘extended deterrence’) that U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia  currently enjoy. Even the perception that major changes to the mainstays of Washington’s nuclear posture were in the offering could seriously impair U.S. credibility and reputation, and simultaneously embolden its adversaries. For example, in the event that the U.S. decided to adopt a no-first use policy, Beijing’s confidence that it could successfully conduct short and limited military operations in the South China Sea region would surely increase. Furthermore, as the regional military balance continues to shift in China’s favour, so the voices within Beijing advocating a more assertive and expansive military and defence posture will likely grow - reducing strategic stability in the Asia and increasing the prospects for tit-for-tat policy dynamics, arms racing, and ultimately war. Consternation of this kind has led to several well placed defence analysts to recommend that Washington should push ahead with its nuclear modernisation agenda and quash any speculation relating to changes to U.S. nuclear policy.

Internationally, these moves are likely to be of concern to key America’s key allies in Europe and Asia. Reports have emerged that officials from Japan, South Korea, the UK and France have privately counselled caution in deciding on any landmark changes to U.S nuclear policies. Japan has expressed concern that a U.S. no-first-use pledge would impair deterrence against threats from North Korea, and increase the risks for inadvertent and accidental conflict. Similarly, America’s European allies have raised concerns that divergent nuclear postures on both sides of the Atlantic could create issues for military coordination and crisis management. Other issues cited include the lack of consultation with U.S. allies on these proposals; the impact upon America’s cornerstone security guarantees; and increased risks of conventional conflict - especially with North Korea, China or Russia - if the threat of a nuclear retaliation is taken off the table.

In sum, the lack of traction on the domestic front and mounting criticism and alarm on the international front has complicated the task for Obama in securing his legacy in his final months in power. And whether it's Trump or Clinton with the finger on the nuclear button in 2017, without broad approval at home or abroad Obama’s nuclear policy wish-list appears neither politically viable nor diplomatically wise in the longer term.  

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