Will the US surrender the nuclear first-use option?

Arms control International relations Nuclear weapons

NEWS that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is establishing a Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission is welcome. But the commission will have an uphill battle to make substantive progress outside the seminar room. There is the obvious problem of getting the usual suspects - such as Iran - into line. But a more politically awkward challenge for Rudd will be moving Washington in the right direction.

The fact is that our most important ally, with which we have such a close relationship and with whom we supposedly have privileged and influential access, has for years ignored our policy and recommendations on some key non-proliferation goals. The most obvious example is Washington’s dismissive attitude to the Australian-sponsored nuclear weapons Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

But the matter goes beyond the CTBT. To develop this point, take a report by senior Western analysts which earlier this year said the United States must be prepared to start a nuclear war. Many people were shocked by this, but not experienced analysts. After all, for decades Washington has declared a readiness to escalate crises into nuclear conflict and has helped kill efforts to ban first use.

This approach goes back to when American plans for nuclear escalation were used to keep the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe. But the first-use option didn’t die with the end of the Cold War, it got repackaged.

The Bush administration’s approach to Iran illustrates how this happened. Rather than simply contain Tehran, Washington has also dabbled with the oxymoronic idea of preventive war, and has contemplated using threats to help bring about political transformation of the country. As part of this muscling up, Washington refuses to rule out nuclear strikes.

This has got the United States into a muddle. One day officials indicate Iran is a potential nuclear target. On other days, as in his last State of the Union Address, Bush says, “Our message to the people of Iran is clear: We have no quarrel with you.” I doubt the message seems clear to many Iranians.

It’s not that Bush wants to press the button. But his advisors say he ought to show a readiness to do so. This supposedly enables Washington to leverage nuclear threats to boost its diplomacy. But using nuclear weapons to put the frighteners on Iran raises problems.

For example, the tactic could encourage more Iranians to want their own deterrent. But there is more than Iranian sensitivities at issue. US nuclear threats also contradict the spirit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Most countries support the NPT on condition they won’t be threatened with devastation by the official members of the nuclear weapons club (the US, Russia, China, UK, France). Many efforts have been made to spell this out. For example, there was a 2006 proposal in the UN to develop legal measures “to assure non-nuclear-weapons states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.” Unfortunately, in the only negative vote from over 160 countries, the US said “no.”

This fits neoconservative instincts. They sometimes enjoy sharpening points of difference with the multilateral mainstream and believe a self evidently virtuous Washington shouldn’t be constrained by global rules. Unsurprisingly, this has exacerbated the difficulty of gaining consensus at NPT meetings and has accentuated perceptions of American double standards.

Washington explains its stubbornness as being motivated by concerns over “weapons of mass destruction.” WMD is a handy expression because it means that if you want to justify making a nuclear threat, but the opponent doesn’t have nuclear bombs, you can point to their biological and chemical weapons, or the usefully vague - and sometimes empty - idea of their “capabilities.” This is despite the fact that many of these weapons, even when they do exist, are incapable of causing mass destruction. Furthermore, according to the Pentagon, the definition of WMD can be stretched even further to include, for example, high explosives. This means any state can be said to have WMD capabilities.

The WMD label is loaded rhetoric, not a serious analytical term. In 2003 it was served-up to start a war; today it’s being unrolled to justify options for nuclear escalation. The Iraq adventure may have discredited WMD-speak among the general public, but the term is still being wheeled-out in politicised strategic analysis. Ludicrous suggestions that US nuclear missiles are equivalent to, say, a rogue state’s stocks of mustard gas are being manipulated to quash growing calls for the role of nuclear weapons to be limited to the deterrence of nuclear war; instead, it’s said by Washington, nuclear weapons have additional roles and uses.

Now, Washington’s nuclear weapons might be needed to deter aggressive nuclear-armed regimes. But this has been confused in US thinking with justifying plans to start nuclear escalation. This is reckless and unwise, for two reasons. First, Washington is most unlikely to use nuclear bombs against the likes of Iran, not least because doing so would probably trigger a political and moral disaster. Second, the unintended - but loud - signal sent by Washington is that these weapons are essential, so non-proliferation is for mugs.

The United States is doing a lot of posturing for the sake of a policy on first-use that offers little strategic benefit and may backfire. It also reinforces perceptions of the neocons as wreckers - happy to talk-up the flaws in the NPT system as an excuse strut their stuff, but unable to come up with a better alternative. These folk are not likely to embrace the spirit in which Rudd’s commission has been proposed.

Unfortunately, however, waiting for the demise of the neocons with the next presidential election will not necessarily solve the problem. They are simply the loudest advocates of an American approach to nuclear weapons which has deep roots.

Bill Clinton’s presidency helps illuminate the point. He was interested in exploring alternatives to the Cold War addiction to the first-use option - but not interested enough to invest the political capital required to make the shift. Key parts of the Pentagon bureaucracy found it easy to dilute, circumvent and ultimately derail suggestions that Washington should adopt a clear stance of no first use. When Clinton tried to move on an associated front, by backing the CTBT, it was the Senate which pulled him into line.

Today, both presumptive presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, look like they would be better guardians of Washington’s place in multilateral non-proliferation than George W. Bush. Both want additional cuts to the US nuclear arsenal, and both resist calls for a new generation of “bunker-buster” nuclear warheads (often seen as the most suitable weapons for first-use); in addition, McCain has said he would reconsider his 1999 opposition to the CTBT. And, predictably, both Obama and McCain mouth platitudes and clich©s about lessening the risk of nuclear war. Obama has also said it would be “a profound mistake” to use nuclear weapons in the war on terror (although Hilary Clinton’s negative, hairy-chested and point-scoring response to this sensible view showed that in America there can still be a political risk in ruling out the nuclear option).

Only time will tell whether the next president will push for a turnaround in US strategic thinking, which currently institutionalises - in the form of diplomatic recalcitrance at NPT meetings, strategic analysis, indoctrination of military personnel, and war planning - a self-declared American right to start nuclear war.

Andy Butfoy lectures in international relations at Monash University.

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