Do you wait till the prospect of obliteration is upon you? Or initiate, blithely, a nuclear holocaust upon your enemy as a matter of what is termed “first use” by the nuclear weapon high priests? Neither prospect is particularly attractive, for each assumes the unthinkable made possible, madness made real.
In one way, even articulating a policy on first use or otherwise is a shoddy way of earning plaudits in the game of annihilation. The logic of obliteration remains. In any case, this was a debate that has transfixed the inner circles of Washington.
The latest fuss largely centres on revising the long held position in US strategic “thinking” that using nuclear weapons first should never be taken off the table. President Barack Obama, in the remaining months of his administration, is attempting to ruffle a few feathers in the strategic outlook in Washington on the use of nuclear weapons.
Keeping the first use option available became a critical feature of deterrent plans against a potential Soviet invasion of Western Europe, where its calamitous promise would hopefully chill the prospect of any such move. Such weapons would also come into play in potential actions in the Asian theatre, notably focused on North Korea and China.
Such murmurings from the Obama administration on a possible “No First Use” declaration caused shudders among some allies late last month – notably those taken with the shibboleth of Washington’s nuclear umbrella.
While scant on precise details, The Washington Post did suggest that Japan, South Korea, France and Britain had send urgent notes of concern to the administration feeling that such a move would be unwise and unnecessarily disruptive.
The message of concern from Japan came straight from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, conveyed directly to Adm. Harry Harris Jr., head of US Pacific Command, while Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, reiterated his understanding that the diplomatic wires had been particularly hot on the subject. “The allies lobbying against [adopting no-first use] are nervous nellies.”
Such nervous nellies can also be found closer to home. Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz can be counted amongst them. Their concerns became clear at a National Security Council meeting in July. Carter’s gripe was that having a no first use posture would risk fostering insecurity within US allied circles and dirtying the sacred notion of deterrence.
The central fallacy to such opposition lies in the self-deluding notion that nuclear deterrence has any genuine credibility. To keep that delusion alive entails staying firm on the issue of obliterating your enemy even as a matter of first course. The finger must be ever hovering above the button.
Such a stance does not convince the secretary-general of an A-bomb survivors group, Kazuo Okoshi, who has been particularly aggravated at Japanese opposition to the new slant in Washington. “North Korea repeatedly conducts nuclear tests. Deterrence is not working.” Clearly.
James E. Cartwright, formerly a vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Bruce G. Blair, founder of the Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction, writing in the New York Times (Aug 14), made their pitch that nuclear weapons, in the post-Cold War thaw, served no other purpose “beyond deterring the first use of such weapons by our adversaries.”
The United States, with its alliances, diplomatic and economic might, “our conventional and cyber weaponry our technological advantages, constitute a global military juggernaut unmatched in history.” If Washington’s adversaries refrain from using nuclear weapons, the US has no need to even consider the prospect.
While the authors do slip into the imperial-speak typical of such pronouncements (we have power far superior to others and all that), they make obvious points. Using such weapons against Russia and China would entail global death; employing such weapons against non-state actors would be “gratuitous”.
The more telling point here is that ditching first use would provide reassurances across the globe while saving oodles of money (less need for a strategic nuclear missile strike force, housed in expensive silos; a leaner force).
This giant, in short, will not act unless provoked, and if so, the results will be catastrophic to all concerned. This assumption is as much grounded in false assessment as it is in optimism, the ultimate point being that if you have such entities at hand, you will use them.
The normalisation such weapons of mass murder has exerted a numbing effect on the strategic establishment. Even Cartwright and Blair, both having been connected with the nuclear establishment in some way, never countenance a world free of nuclear weapons. They are in the business of risk reduction and norm creation, hoping that Obama’s embrace of a no-first use policy would cause other states to follow.
States in possession of them may well make superficial gestures: the odd promise to cull a certain type of delivery weapon; a scant reduction of warheads. Others will wheeze their way in response. None of this ultimately helps with the prospect of abolition – the mere existence of one such weapon is one too many.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com