Michael KreponMaking Nukes Weapons of Last Resort

Lyric of the Week:

Won’t you please come to Chicago
For the help that we can bring

We can change the world
Re-arrange the world
It’s dying — to get better
–Graham Nash, “Chicago”

The tension between deterrence and arms control is hard-wired: those of us who believe that reducing nuclear dangers requires reducing the salience of these weapons propose steps that are opposed by those who believe that any weakening of deterrence would increase the risk of nuclear use.

It’s an endless tug of war between arms controllers who believe that deterrence strengtheners go too far, and deterrence strengtheners who believe that arms controllers go too far.

One longstanding argument is over “No First Use.” Some among us strongly believe in this rhetorical and doctrinal commitment.  I happen to appreciate where they are coming from, but have misgivings. Strong opposition comes those who believe this doctrinal change will weaken deterrence.

There’s no need to rehearse these arguments here. So, let’s try something different: Let’s take a walk down memory lane when giants and exceptionally skilled political appointees at the top of their game in a Republican administration roamed the land. This was before hubris and overzealous choices turned many of these very same individuals into a sequel of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

I’m referring, of course, to the George H.W. Bush administration. Its accomplishments were so profound, its diplomatic skills so impressive, and its tactics so brilliant that one temporary accomplishment has gotten lost in the cracks. I’m referring to the time in 1990 when Bush 41 & Co. convinced NATO – that would be the NATO of Margaret Thatcher – to endorse the rhetorical formulation that nuclear weapons ought to be considered as “weapons of last resort.”

The political context was crucial to understanding this story, which is told by Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice in their essential Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft, which is the sole source of my account.

The world was experiencing momentous developments in 1990. The year before, Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft handled Gorbachev with kid gloves, responding to his firehose of proposals with timid tests of trust. But they couldn’t sit on the sidelines for long. The pace of change was too great. The Bush White House became seized with the need to help shape events in ways that could help produce soft landings as well as new architecture.

Bush and Baker convinced Gorbachev that the best outcome for the German Question was a united Germany that could choose its alliance affiliation, which was a polite way of saying that it could join NATO. But this prospect gave pause to many, and not just in the Soviet Union. The need of the hour was to come up with a serious package of proposals that could smooth jitters in the West while demonstrating to Gorbachev that a new Europe — westward as well as eastward — was in formation.

Bush tasked his aides to come up with a meaningful package that could be unveiled at a NATO summit on Margaret Thatcher’s turf on July 5-6, 1990. Everyone was challenged to think creatively; Bush wanted the plan to raise eyebrows. Bob Blackwill proposed the “weapons of last resort” formulation. He and Philip Zelikow worked on language for the draft summit communique.

Everyone was in agreement about the need to relax flexible response at a time of massive, positive geopolitical change. Arnold Kanter, a brilliant mind that left us way too soon, put no first use on the table. Paul Wolfowitz and Blackwill opposed this, with Wolfowitz reminding everyone that the objective wasn’t to make the world safe for conventional war. Ron Lehman of ACDA agreed. They returned to the “weapons of last resort” formulation. Blackwill had the support of Robert Zoellick, which meant that he had James Baker on board. Robert Gates was on board, as well. With the walls closing in, Paul Wolfowitz “murmured his assent.”

Baker, Scowcroft, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell then met to bless the “weapons of last resort” formulation and the rest of the draft NATO communique. It was Baker’s job to get NATO heads of state to agree. Nobody was better equipped.

Baker took pains to avoid nibbling by aides whose job description was nibbling. The U.S draft would be sent by President Bush directly to his counterparts, thereby escaping revision by career officials. Specific leaders would be brought into the fold early so that those unhappiest – no need to guess – would be unable to gain countervailing support. Discussion would be confined to the ministerial level, and the time for discussion would be short. It was, as Zelikow and Rice write, a “risky” plan. But Baker played his cards masterfully.

Bush sent a message to Thatcher trying to address her specific concerns on the nuclear question and repeating his top-line argument that the summit needed to make bold moves rather than producing a mumble. He and Baker left it up to her “to decide whether she was willing to risk an Anglo-American clash.” Francois Mitterrand shared Thatcher’s concerns on weakening flexible response, but since France was half-fish and half-fowl when it came to its nuclear affiliation with NATO, his was not a decisive voice.

At the London summit, Thatcher said she understood the need for NATO “to match the moment,” but “not at the expense of our future defence and security.” Chancellor Helmut Kohl then weighed in to support Bush’s formulation. Other leaders agreed. Next, it was the turn of Foreign Ministers to toil on the communique’s language, where it became clear that British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd had been instructed to avoid an open breach with Washington.

The final NATO Communique remains a stunning document to read. It promised a change in NATO nuclear strategy to make “nuclear forces truly weapons of last resort.” The terminology of “flexible response” and “forward defense” were, in the words of Zelikow and Rice, “explicitly consigned to the past.” There were other ruffles and flourishes. NATO promised to eliminate nuclear artillery from Europe if the Soviet Union did, as well.

Three decades later, much of this has come undone. So why dredge up this history? I can think of a couple of reasons. First, if you want to change nuclear doctrine that affects allies, there are no shortcuts: the allies have to be on board. Consider how much top-down support and talent was required in 1990 to adopt this language in a NATO document. No American President has subsequently had the firepower, strategy, and tactics to succeed.

Second, consider how positive the international context was to foster this initiative. Now consider tossing a congressional resolution supporting No First Use into the current, decidedly negative international context, where U.S. ties with allies in Europe and Asia are in tatters.

I continue to support the “weapons of last resort” formulation. I’m convinced that the best way to get there is to strengthen the norm of non-battlefield use — now three-quarters of a century strong. Every day, every month, and every year that passes without battlefield use, we are closer to success. Success requires back-up from both arms control and deterrence. Success requires shouting when India and Pakistan are at loggerheads. Success also requires clarification that the next person contemplating a mushroom cloud will become a figure that will live in infamy for the rest of recorded history.

Way too slow? Not as appealing as changing nuclear doctrine? We’ve managed to avoid battlefield use one crisis at a time for 75 years despite nuclear doctrines poised toward use. Why not 25 more, until the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?


  1. robgoldston (History)
  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “Weapons of last resort” sounds like it could permit early nuclear use by NATO, once it became clear a massive Soviet conventional force invasion was in progress. It also sounds like it could permit U.S. first use in regional wars, such as Korea or Vietnam, if the U.S. feels conventional force alone is too expensive or insufficiently effective. Nor does it appear to forbid “launch on warning” against perceived enemy missile attack.

    At most, the phrase seems to forbid a nuclear “bolt from the blue” or a nuclear first use at the very beginning of a conventional war. In other words, it rules out “completely crazy” uses of nuclear weapons, but does not appear to forbid other risky nuclear scenarios that have been frequently advocated.