Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nuclear Weapons: The First Use Option

The U.S. nuclear posture review is coming up, and Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy, has an op-ed in USA Today arguing that we should abandon our current policy and adopt a "no first use" pledge. This is a foolish idea based on at least two false assumptions.

Harrison asserts that a right of first use is "is incompatible with the goal of non-proliferation." This is obvious nonsense. It's completely delusional to assume that countries like Iran and North Korea primarily want nuclear weapons out of fear of a U.S. nuclear first strike. There are many reasons countries might seek to acquire such weapons, and one of the main ones is that the possession of nuclear weapons is a strong deterrent to conventional attack. Rogue states fearing attack or invasion, and facing the overwhelming conventional power of the United States, have a clear reason to want nuclear weapons. Their reasons have little or nothing to do with whether or not the U.S. retains the option to strike first with nuclear weapons.

The article also appears to rest on a fundamentally mistaken underlying assumption that is common on the left when considering weapons of any kind -- the idea that the weapons themselves are the problem. In my view, the whole notion of nuclear proliferation as an evil that must be fought, is misguided. The problem isn't the weapons, it's the states which possess them. Should we be worried about nuclear weapons in the hands of Britain, France, or other allies of the U.S.? What if Switzerland decided to build nuclear weapons? Would that be in any way similar to the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of Iranian mullahs? Pretending that nuclear proliferation in general is the problem, instead of rogue state possession of nuclear weapons, is a common error in perspective. 

U.S. nuclear weapons, just like other weapons in our arsenal, should be employed in accordance with U.S. interests. It is possible that a situation might arise where we might need to strike first with nuclear weapons. We can't foresee the future. Constricting U.S. strategic options by making some sort of pledge is both stupid and dangerous -- especially since the supposed benefits of such a pledge are based on false assumptions and delusions.

reaffirming the right of first use would say, in effect, that the United States has no apologies for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is ready for a repeat performance whenever and wherever it chooses.
That's exactly what we should say.


  1. Exactly. Very clear and pretty much irrefutable argument. It is for those who wish to change the policy to prove how it would be beneficial. It appears they cannot. I'm an IR scholar and I can't think of one way that this helps US interests. If the US makes this change it probably wouldn't make the Iranian or North Korean news cycle because it changes nothing for them.

  2. Here we go again, here is a 2 page article by James Traub approving of Obama's nuclear plan. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/03/30/nuclear_options?page=0,1

    Unsurprising it is a waste of 2 pages as no where can be found how Obama's 'no nukes' plan helps US interests or the deterrence of others gaining such weapons. Nothing. I'm afraid it is becoming mainstream to disregard nuclear weapons in the United States and worse yet, a belief is spreading that this type of policy could actually stop regimes like the Islamic Republic and Kim Jung Il. Of course, no one has come up with reasons to prove such a claim.

  3. The North Koreans and Iranians would almost certainly see such a pledge as an act of weakness by the U.S. -- with good reason.

  4. I saw an article on Debka saying that Israel may use tactical nuke against Iran

  5. Just found this blog (got linked from an atheist list).

    I agree with your first point but not your second. While I am a strong defender of our 2nd Amendment rights and don't blame weapons for bad things happening in general, I just cannot see any kind of scenario in today's world in which even a limited nuclear attack against any nation would be in our interests. Merely saying that we don't know what the future will bring is a weak argument, IMO, which could be used to support any policy of any kind.

    Let's face it - nuclear weapons have an incredibly negative stigma, and it's not hard to see why. They indiscriminately destroy pretty much everything (good guys, bad guys, civilians, wild life, crops, infrastructure, etc), and some leave nasty effects (radiation poisoning, cancer, etc) long after they've been detonated. Even if we encountered a scenario where could/should/would use such a weapon again, it's pretty much a given that it would disrupt any kind of good foreign relations or good will we have established with our allies. It would also probably bolster rogue states due to a "They used one, so why can't I?" mentality. It's likely that any short term tactical advantage of using such a weapon would be overshadowed by the long term implications.

    Remember, many of the conflicts we are in today are just as much wars of ideas as they are wars of bullets and explosives.

    There are other practical reasons not to use or hold nuclear weapons as well.
    1) It's expensive to create, maintain, and guard such weapons and technology.
    2) Having more nuclear weapons lying around increases the chances that someone bad might steal one. While this might not be true for our country, it may be true for our allies or former enemies. Just take Soviet Russia for example. It is a well known fact that when the government fell apart, many weapons were either sold to or stolen by foreign states or entities. Who's to say nuclear material was not stolen as well?

    These were just some of my thoughts.

  6. "I just cannot see any kind of scenario in today's world in which even a limited nuclear attack against any nation would be in our interests. "

    I can. But at any rate, I'm not arguing for their use, just that we don't close off one of our strategic options.

    "There are other practical reasons not to use or hold nuclear weapons as well."

    Nuclear weapons aren't going anywhere. In my opinion, trying to get rid of them completely is both dangerous and unrealistic. But again, that's a different issue than the first-use option.