PONI Debates the Issues: U.S. Nuclear Declaratory Policy

May 25, 2010 • 5:00 – 7:00 pm EDT

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PONI Debates the Issues will hosted the third event of the 2010 live debate series on Tuesday, May 25.  The topic for the debate was U.S. nuclear declaratory policy.  The speakers for the event were Scott Sagan, Co-Director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and Keith Payne, CEO and President of the National Institute for Public Policy.

The Obama Administration has wrestled heavily with the question of U.S. declaratory policy.  Based on the guidance set forth in President Obama's Prague speech in April 2009, the United States seeks to reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons while retaining a safe, secure, and effective deterrent.  U.S declaratory policy, defining the circumstances under which the nuclear weapons would be used, is one of the central policy issues the Administration had to answer as it balanced these two competing objectives.

For decades, the United States has retained a policy of "calculated ambiguity" whereby the United States retains any option, including nuclear, to respond to military threats which can include chemical, biological, and large-scale conventional threats.  Proponents of the policy argue that the ambiguity provides a valuable form of flexibility that helps to deter conflict because the prospect of nuclear use helps induce caution in leaders.  Meanwhile, opponents of calculated ambiguity argue that the policy is not credible because the United States would not use nuclear weapons to respond to these threats and so saying that we might only opens to door to pressure for their usage following a contingency scenario. 

Recently, the Obama Administration released its "Nuclear Posture Review," (NPR) a Department of Defense led effort to define U.S. nuclear strategy, policy, and posture for the next 5 - 10 years.  With regards to declaratory policy, the NPR slightly narrow the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons.  It stated that

the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations

This declaration has two noticeable changes.   First, it updated the longstanding U.S. "negative security assurance" not to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state by making clear that a state must be in compliance with its nonproliferation obligations to be eligible for the assurance.  Second, assuming a state is eligible for the negative security assurance, the United States will not use nuclear weapons to deter a chemical or biological attack on the United States.  That said, the document also clarifies that the United States retains the right to revise its pledge in the context of biological weapons should that threat grow at an unexpected rate. 

For decades, Scott Sagan and Keith Payne have been at the forefront of debate about U.S. declaratory policy.  As two of the most prolific writers on the subject, both authors have made indispensible contributions to understanding how best to formulate U.S. nuclear policy. Just last year, the two were major contributors to the October 2009 issue of Survival that featured an in-depth discussion on the merits of declaring a "No First Use" policy, which maintains that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons during a conflict.

Clark A. Murdock

Clark A. Murdock

Former Senior Adviser (Non-resident), International Security Program