Jeffrey LewisRuling Out The Use of Nuclear Weapons

“I would certainly take nuclear weapons off the table.”

Hilary Clinton in an interview with Bloomberg Television in April 2006, responding to a question about how the Bush administration should try to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

“I don’t believe any president should make blanket statements with the regard to use or nonuse” [of nuclear weapons.]

Hilary Clinton, August 2007, criticizing Barack Obama for ruling out the use of nuclear weapons to target Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

She was right in April 2006, by the way.

This aversion to “ruling out” or “taking off the table” even manifestly stupid uses of nuclear weapons is an obsolete practice of a bygone Cold War era.

Or, at least, that is what Ivo Daalder and I argue today in the Financial Times (subscription only):

Rather than debating which candidate has the most experience, is the strongest and toughest, or most favours change, we need to debate the nature of the world we live in and the appropriate way to respond to the new challenges that are out there. When it comes to nuclear weapons, is the most presidential stance the one that views nuclear weapons as another munition to brandish? Or is it one that accepts the legitimacy of possessing these weapons only to prevent them from ever being used again?


  1. Amyfw (History)

    Its worth remembering that we began to take nuclear weapons off the table in 1978, when we first enunciated our negative security assurance, saying we wouldn’t threaten nuclear use against non-nuclear countries that were parties to the NPT (unless they were aligned with a nuclear state, i.e. the Warsaw Pact states). But, of course, this is a political commitment, not a legally binding one, and it certainly isn’t binding on the war-planners in the Pentagon. We’ve always been somewhat schizophrenic about this, noting the benefits of ambiguity for our deterrent strategy, and the benefits of NSAs for our nonproliferation strategy. This Administration sought to shift the balance, with Bolton’s disavowal of the NSAs, but the center of gravity is certainly shifting again, with the growing sense that we do more harm to our nonproliferation policy than good to our deterrent policy, as we allow the studied ambiguity, and refusal to rule out use, to guide nuclear policy.

    Ahhh. Declaratory policy. Its just one of those issues inside the much bigger question of “what role for nuclear weapons.”

  2. MikeB (History)

    Nuclear saber rattling is not conducive to easing world tension. A confident person does not rely on ambiguity to make positions clear.

  3. Miles Pomper (History)

    Amy of course is right.. I was amazed that Hillary could say no blanket statements against nuclear use should be made—given Carter did in 1978 and the US under her hubby did it in 1995 to help make the NPT permanent. For good background on this see the article on NSAs by George Bunn and JeanDuPreez in this month’s Arms Control Today. I’m also surprised how little attention has bee paid to the recent French and British changes in declaratory policy vis a vis terrorists which plays into this…

  4. johnwbragg (History)

    The NSA’s still apply, though. The NSAs apply to non-nuclear states. If Iran weren’t trying to build nuclear weapons, we wouldn’t be considering conventional airstrikes, never mind possibly theoretically maybe under some conditions nuclear strikes.

    That said, we should move to a no-first-strike pledge anyway.

  5. Miles Pomper (History)

    John, you make a good point on no-first-use. But the question addressed to Obama was whether he would use nukes against Osama and other terrorists if he were to send in US forces to take them out in Afghanistan and Pakistan… And it was not even posed in the context of the terrorists necessarily having nuclear weapons or other kinds of WMD.On this issue, I would recommend to all Jack Mendelsohn’s piece in the August 10 Christian Science Monitor…

  6. Enoch

    Article says: “We must also reduce the potential availability of these weapons and technologies. To that end, the US and the other nuclear powers should reduce their reliance on nuclear forces, decrease the size of their arsenals, remove weapons from “dangerous alert” status and strengthen physical security so that nuclear weapons are not stolen or transferred. The nuclear weapons we do keep should be the minimum necessary to prevent the use of any nuclear weapon by others.”

    Not all nuclear programs are equally “unsafe”, and not all nuclear programs equally promote proliferation. The US, British, and French nuclear arsenals are essentially irrelevant to the “loose nukes” and proliferation problem. Would reducing the reliance of the US / UK / France on nuclear forces, decreasing the size of their arsenals, and dealerting them really do anything to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons? I am dubious. We all know who the bad guys are in the world of nuclear security, and no amount of “tightening up” of good guy security is going to make the bad guy arsenals any more secure.

  7. b (History)

    sorry, off topic free to test nuclear weapons under U.S. deal, leader says

  8. Petesake (History)

    “saber rattling” LOL This has ceased to work.

    More like, Wolf!, Wolf!, Wolf!!

  9. MarkoB

    It is false to assert that “this administration” is shifting the ground between deterrence and NSA’s. Clinton’s PDD 60 basically chucked NSA’s out the window…but this post is interesting. The closer one gets to centres of power the more DC friendly one’s analysis becomes.

  10. Jeremy (History)

    Enoch, please spare me the “good guy”/”bad guy” talk. It just takes us another step away from being able to objectively analyze the problem—need I remind you of the multiple security breaches our nuclear labs have experienced over the last few years? Please don’t make the argument that as long as our nuclear security isn’t as bad as theirs, we don’t have anything to worry about. Nuclear security is an absolute issue, not a relative one.

  11. Amyfw (History)

    Oooh, MarkoB, that hurt. I’m really not that close to the centers of D.C. power. I do, however, have a loooong historical view of U.S. nuclear weapon policy and posture (I can identify numerous shifts, without looking at references, going well back to the ‘50s). While it is true that the Clinton Administration added an exclusion or two to the NSAs (I like to refer to it as the Pelindaba exclusion, which was added to address Libya’s chemical facilities), the Clinton exclusions are orders of magnitude different from the Bush era, where Bolton just disavowed the NSAs, and didn’t even pretend to keep them with exclusions. The real problem is that the NSAs are a political commitment, they are not legally binding on the U.S., and they certainly are not legally binding on the targeteers in the Pentagon. Again, we are schizophrenic about this—declartory policy and targeting policy don’t match. And the lack of matching has gotten much worse in the last 6 years. (And I know where the weaknesses were in the previous 8 years, as I was close to the center for some of that time).

  12. Miles Pomper (History)

    By the way, Jeffrey, as much as I respect the content of what you and Ivo wrote in the FT I must say I found it strange that they did not mention that he is an unpaid adviser to the Obama campaign. This seems highly relevant in this context.

  13. hass (History)

    To put nuclear attacks on the table is to commit a crime:

  14. Enoch

    The “good” and “bad” formulation did not pertain to morality. “Good” and “bad” only meant more / less secure from the standpoint of nuclear security. I certainly did not make the argument that our security is perfect and that we don’t need to worry about it. The fact is, however, that if we care about loose nukes / proliferation, we should worry a lot more about the security of other nations nuclear programs than we do about our own. Relative security DOES matter – it tells you where you should focus your resources and attention.

    I don’t see how any objective analysis of the problem can possibly lead to the conclusion advanced in the article that improvements in US nuclear security (as well as reducing the size of our arsenal and dealerting weapons) would meaningfully reduce the possibility that terrorists will get their hands on nukes or that additional countries will gain nuclear capability. The chances of terrorists getting their hands on a usable American (or British or French) weapon is insignificant compared to the chances of them getting their hands on a Russian, North Korean, or Pakistani weapon. The chances of Iran getting nuclear technology or know-how from the US is insignificant compared to the chances of them getting such technology / know-how from Russia, China, North Korea, or Pakistan. How much does it matter if our own barn door is locked and bolted if several other barns are wide open?