Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 19:44 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 19:44 | SYDNEY

Nukes: No, please, you first


Sam Roggeveen


3 November 2009 15:45

In two related blog posts, Hugh White set out his conditions for assessing whether Barack Obama is serious about nuclear abolition. First, Hugh says Obama must give a speech in Washington about the costs and risks of nuclear disarmament; and second, he recommends that Obama offer a pledge that the US will never be the first to use nuclear weapons ('No First Use' or NFU).

These strike me as strange tests of Obama's fealty to the abolitionist cause. They're not unworthy ideas, but there are other things that would do more to demonstrate Obama's bona fides.

I don't think a speech of the kind Hugh describes could do much harm, but it would be premature. Both Obama and his Secretary of State have said nuclear abolition willl not occur quickly ('perhaps not in my lifetime', said Obama). So is there really much point in Obama explaining to Americans how the country's security would be maintained as it transitions away from nuclear deterrence to an all-conventional posture? The US will get nowhere near that territory, even within the time of a second Obama term, so his words wouldn't carry that much weight anyway, and no successor would feel bound by them.

A far more tangible sign of Obama's commitment to abolition would be if he made substantial cuts to the US nuclear arsenal, which is just what looks to be happening in the US-Russian talks about a follow-up to the START treaty.

I find Hugh's No First Use idea much more attractive, and as I wrote last week, there was enough in Hillary Clinton's recent speech to make me think the Americans are at least considering an NFU pledge as part of the Nuclear Posture Review. NFU sends the message that nuclear weapons are only useful for deterring nuclear attack, and that's an important intellectual and doctrinal step toward abolition.

Problem is, it's not only the Pentagon that sees a wider role for nuclear weapons. As Rory Medcalf argued in his Wicked Weapons paper, Japan too seems to take a quite expansive view about the role of nuclear weapons. At the very least, Japan has been ambiguous on this subject, and I agree with Rory's suggestion that Tokyo should explicitly declare that nuclear weapons are not designed to counter chemical, biological or other threats.

Were Obama to act before Japan on NFU, there would surely be concern that the US was reducing its security guarantee to Japan. So better that Tokyo go first, or better yet, that they go together.

Photo by Flickr user Nick Hobgood, used under a Creative Commons license.