The October-November 2009 issue of Survival includes an excellent back and forth on the merits of a nuclear “no first use” declaratory policy (hat tip: PONI). The exchange is in response to Scott Sagan’s article supporting such a policy in the June-July 2009 issue.
As the most hackneyed saying in the blogosphere goes, read the whole thing. And if you’re interested in some further discussion on the arguments of one of Sagan’s interlocutors, well, you know what to do.
Bruno Tertrais raises a number of objections to Sagan’s case, most of which Sagan ably rebuts in his reply. Yet Sagan did not challenge two points made by Tertrais that I think merit a response.
A “commitment trap”?
In his seminal article on no first use in the Spring 2000 issue of International Security, Sagan wrote:
current nuclear doctrine creates a “commitment trap”: threats to use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack are credible, because if CW or BW are used despite such threats, the U.S. president would feel compelled to retaliate with nuclear weapons to maintain his or her international and domestic reputation for honoring commitments.
Sagan reiterated this point in his Survival article, which prompted the following response from Tertrais:
But why would there be such a trap as long as there is no promise of a guaranteed nuclear response? That is precisely the point of “calculated ambiguity”….I cannot believe, moreover, that an American president would see “reputation” as a reason to take the most dramatic military decision a Western leader has had to take since 1945.
Is Tertrais’ disbelief warranted? I think the more compelling logic is on the side of Sagan here. In fact, Tertrais himself appears to concede that reputation is something to be taken seriously in international politics.
For instance, one of the cudgels he yields against no first use is that it could carry significant “non-proliferation costs”: allies covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella might doubt the credibility of the U.S. deterrent, thereby leading them to develop their own indigenous nuclear weapons programs. Put in another way, a no first use policy would call into question the U.S. commitment to live up to its reputation as the ultimate guarantor of Japanese security.
If reputation is a reason why the U.S. should not abandon calculated ambiguity, how can Tertrais be so certain that no American president would view reputation as a reason to use nuclear weapons? These are different cases, to be sure, but in the event of a North Korean chemical or biological attack on Japan, couldn’t the perceived need to make good on a pledge to meet deterrent commitments to Japan put immense pressure on the President to respond with nuclear weapons – even though there was no firm promise to respond in such a way?
Sagan spoke to this pressure in more detail in his 2000 essay:
The problem here is one of degree: it is unlikely that any U.S. president would respond with nuclear weapons to a very small-scale chemical or biological weapons attack; yet a president’s belief that his or her statements, or those of subordinate officials, had created a commitment in the eyes of allies and future adversaries could tip the balance between nuclear and conventional response in more serious contingencies. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more important or valid reason for using nuclear weapons in response to chemical or biological weapons attacks. [emphasis mine].
Would no first use leave the U.S. vulnerable?
According to Tertrais, the answer is yes:
[no first use] would signal those adversaries who would take such a commitment seriously that they could do anything to the United States or its allies without ever facing the risk of a nuclear response, using chemical weapons against our forces on a battlefield, raining down conventional ballistic missiles on our homelands, or launching biological munitions against our populations.
This is a straw man of what a no first use policy is all about. As Sagan notes in his Survival article, “declaratory policy is not about making ‘promises’ about future restraint; it is about signaling intent and therefore shaping the expectations of allies and adversaries alike, even if some residual uncertainty remains.”
Look, even if the United States were to adopt a no first use policy, its nuclear arsenal is still on the table, so to speak. This existential reality is something potential adversaries would have to take into account when considering whether to attack the United States with WMD or advanced conventional weapons. The point is that the more U.S. leaders and government officials loudly and publically suggest that nuclear weapons remain relevant for various contingencies, the more likely it would be to actually use them in the event of such a contingency – because of the commitment trap.