Should U.S. keep 'first use' option?

USA Today

Upcoming ‘nuclear posture review’ will set the tone for non-proliferation efforts for years to come. Iran and North Korea will be watching.

By Selig S. Harrison

When should the U.S. use nuclear weapons? Most Americans would no doubt reply: when and if it is attacked with nuclear weapons. But in the struggle over what nuclear policy should be for the Obama administration, Pentagon strategists, egged on by Japanese defense hawks, argue that the U.S. should also be free to launch a nuclear first strike against an enemy armed only with conventional weapons, as it did at Hiroshimaand Nagasaki 65 years ago, or one seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
The recommendations of the administration’s "nuclear posture review," to be unveiled "sometime in April,"
will have a profound impact on global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. North Korea and Iran will get new ammunition to justify their pursuit of nuclear weapons if theUnited States formally reaffirms a "first use" option. Every new president conducts an interagency review of nuclear strategy coordinated by the Pentagon.
During the Cold War, the U.S. rationale for keeping this option open was that the Soviet bloc enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in troop strength and conventional firepower in Europe. A similar rationale was used to justify the threat of first use in deterring North Korea. But as former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has argued, "There are no longer tank divisions along our border that can break through within 48 hours. The first-use policy was a response to a situation that has fundamentally changed."
As for North Korea, its once formidable army is no match for the sophisticated South Korean forces that have been developed with U.S. help in recent decades.
An incompatible stance
Asserting the right of first use is described as tough and realistic, but it is actually unrealistic.
It is incompatible with the goal of non-proliferation. Article Six of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty provides for the reduction of existing arsenals in return for the non-nuclear powers remaining non-nuclear. But the non-nuclear states can hardly be expected to keep their promise if the nuclear powers threaten first use of the nuclear weapons still in their possession while reductions proceed at a glacial pace spread over decades.
In the case of North Korea, where I have visited 11 times, the harsh reality is that the policies pursued by the U.S. will not work. Although the U.S. has unilaterally removed its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea, it continues to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles within striking range of North Korea.
For this reason, when Pyongyang suspended its nuclear weapons program for eight years, it did so only after the U.S. formally pledged in a 1994 agreement to give assurances "against the threat or use of nuclear weapons."
A similar pledge, together with a peace treaty ending the Korean War and steps to normalize relations, would be necessary now in return for new denuclearization measures by Pyongyang. But the Pentagon has resisted such a pledge. Barring last-minute intervention by the president, the review will accept the longstanding Pentagon premise that any restriction on first use would deny U.S. generals the necessary element of unpredictability and surprise in countering Pyongyang's possible use not only of nuclear weapons, but of chemical and biological weapons as well.
An obvious objection to a "no first use" pledge is that it could be broken in a crisis. But "having one from you would be better than not having one," observed Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of Iran's parliament, on my visit to Tehran in 2008. "It would be important in building confidence between us. After all, you come into the (Persian) Gulf with your ships, and for all we know, they have nuclear weapons."
How Japan sees it
The posture review gained special significance when President Obama pledged in a Prague speech on April 5, 2009, to "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy" as part of accelerated steps toward disarmament.
After that speech, a delegation of influential hawks in the Japanese defense agency lobbied Congress and the administration, warning that Japan would develop its own nuclear weapons capability if the posture review ruled out first use against China and North Korea. But that was before the Liberal Democratic Party was defeated by the Democratic Party in August.
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada has made the new government's position crystal clear. On Sept. 16, Okada questioned "whether countries which declare their willingness to make first use of nuclear weapons have any right to speak about nuclear non-proliferation." Okada represents the majority of Japanese who oppose the development of nuclear weapons. A U.S. no-first-use policy would strengthen the embattled anti-nuclear forces in their continuing struggle with powerful nationalistic hawks who will continue to push for a nuclear-armed Japan no matter what the U.S. posture review says.
By the same token, not only in Japan, but throughout the world, 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.

Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy.

(Atomic bomb test: In July 1946 in the Marshall Islands, the Pentagon studied how nuclear weapons affected warships and equipment./AP file photo.)



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