by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
President Barack Obama is considering adopting a policy of “no first use,” i.e., declaring that the United States would never use nuclear weapons except after a nuclear attack on itself or its allies. From Obama’s perspective, this change would have the dual advantage of being something he can legitimately do on his own and representing a radical departure in the country’s nuclear doctrine.
For 70 years, presidents of both parties have maintained a posture of nuclear ambiguity. We wanted enemies to have to contemplate the possibility of a U.S. nuclear response to acts of aggression. This added an extra element of uncertainty and risk to potential attacks on us or our friends, in the hopes of deterring them in the first place.
For the advocates of no first use, the very fact that ambiguity has been our policy for so long is a reason to abandon it. They urge that we get beyond “Cold War thinking,” a favorite line of President Obama’s as well. The end of the Cold War indeed changed the strategic environment, but it didn’t make nuclear weapons obsolete, or render age-old concepts like deterrence inoperative, or eliminate international conflict. …
… Declaring no first use would kick away an element of our nuclear deterrent. Yes, we no longer have to worry about deterring a massive Soviet army facing west. But Vladimir Putin has already changed the borders of Europe through force, and there’s no reason to think he’s necessarily done. A RAND Corporation study says that Russian forces could reach the capitals of the Baltic States in less than 60 hours.
Why would we make Putin’s calculation any easier in considering such a move, or ease the minds of other potential aggressors like China and North Korea?