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Herb London: Obama's No First Use Policy

When President Obama received his Nobel Prize, he argued that he would regard nuclear proliferation as his primary challenge. This is hardly surprising since even as a Columbia College student he advocated a nuclear free world – a position consistent with the idealism of a student who knew very little about the ambitions of U.S. adversaries. Yet now after eight years in office, the president retains this same arms control illusion.

Since he assumed the oath of office in 2009 the president has pressed for the shrinking and weakening of the U.S. nuclear arsenal armed as evidence by this signing of the New Start Treaty with Russia and avoiding modernization of the aging nuclear platforms.

Japan, Taiwan, among others, reliant on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for security are increasingly uncomfortable with the direction in America policy and are dubious about the reliability of our pledge for nuclear assistance.

To make matters even more confusing for U.S. allies, it appears as if the president is prepared to declare a new policy of “no first use” – a doctrine that contends America would never use nuclear weapons unless an adversary does so first. This seemingly benign gesture undermines decades of intentional ambiguity and the basis of deterrence.

In fact, State Department officials questioned about the matter argue the president’s position is wrongheaded. The fatal weakness in his contention is that it signals to our enemies that they need not fear nuclear retaliation from the U.S. even if they attack us with conventional, chemical, or biological weapons. In any war gaming escalation scenario, our battlefield initiatives end where nuclear weapons might be entertained. No first use suggests to foes that they should act as aggressively as possible short of nuclear war.

Deterrence, which has kept the lid on nuclear weapons since 1945, is undergoing a monumental shift. The Obama Administration 2010 Nuclear Posture Review contended Russia was no longer an adversary, a contention that recent history in Crimea and Syria would challenge. Moreover, it is likely the president will overlook Constitutional restraints on this matter by submitting a proposal to the United Nations Security Council thereby usurping Senate Treaty power as he did with the Iran Nuclear deal.

Should this ban gain traction, it would mean in reality that the U.S. would place constraints on itself while dishonest parties like Iran, Russia, China, North Korea would be free to exploit U.S. nuclear concessions. By any stretch of the imagination, the Obama proposal is the nadir in American nuclear deterrence.

Heretofore, deterrence was a rational proposition based on a belief that certain actions would lead to a certain catastrophic result. Fear is the underlying psychological basis for deterrence since the presumption is neither side in an adversarial situation would be willing to sacrifice its population. However, in an environment when one side is willing to sacrifice its population for theological reasons or concessions are made about when weapons might be used, the essence of deterrence is interrupted.

History hasn’t examples from the nuclear age because deterrence has worked, notwithstanding fears, brinksmanship and mistakes. A system of protocols has maintained international equilibrium because even with tocsin in the air controls on nuclear weapons have been effective.

However, these protocols can be overlooked. If the Obama agenda is embraced, there is little doubt the fragility of deterrence will be made obvious, even though President Obama believes this is a major step toward a nuclear free world. Britain, France, Japan, believe he is wrong, but this is one of those issues where you don’t want the proposition tested. Even if theoretical, no first use takes the U.S. in a highly questionable direction.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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