Jeffrey LewisSagan on No First Use

Scott Sagan argues very convincingly in the pages of Survival that the United States should adopt a declaratory policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons (Scott D. Sagan, “The Case for No First Use,” Survival 51:3, June–July 2009, pp. 163–182).

Particularly compelling, to me, is his demolition of “calculated ambiguity” using a case study from the Bush Administration. Whatever the appeal in theory, in real life “calculated ambiguity” degenerates into the clumsy brandishing of nuclear weapons.

I had been mulling a similar case study in a memo using the almost comical efforts to maintain “calculated ambiguity” regarding a possible nuclear strike against the Libyan facility at Tarhuna. The Clinton Administration looked like the Keystone Cops armed with nuclear weapons, which says something when you manage to upstage Muammar al-Gaddafi in a black comedy.

No need to, now. Scott executes a much cleaner demonstration of why “calculated ambiguity” is, to my mind, more trouble than it is worth:

Options on the table

A US no-first-use declaration would also enhance US non-proliferation objectives by increasing international diplomatic support for tougher diplomatic measures against potential proliferators. Recent attempts to use coercive diplomacy against Iran illustrate the point. Bush and Cheney repeatedly hinted in 2006 and 2007, by noting that ‘all options are on the table’, at US plans to use military force to attack Iran’s nuclear programme if diplomatic efforts and UN sanctions failed to persuade Tehran to give up its uranium enrichment and other facilities. In April 2006, journalist Seymour Hersh sparked an international controversy by reporting that the US contingency attack plans that had been sent to the White House included the option of using tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iranian underground facilities.

At a press conference on 18 April 2006, Bush pointedly left open the possibility that his statements were meant to include the option of a preventive first strike with nuclear weapons:

Q: Sir, when you talk about Iran, and you talk about how you have diplomatic efforts, you also say all options are on the table. Does that include the possibility of a nuclear strike? Is that something that your administration will plan for?

THE PRESIDENT: All options are on the table.

It is not clear whether Bush was engaging in coercive diplomacy, following the ‘calculated ambiguity’ nuclear doctrine, or whether he was simply following the script laid out in his notes. In response to this press conference comment, however, Iran’s UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, immediately protested, in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, against what he called ‘a tacit confirmation of the shocking news on the administration’s possible contemplation of nuclear strikes against certain targets in Iran’. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw also joined the debate, answering ‘yes’ when a BBC reporter asked him if the UK government would ‘unequivocally say we want nothing to do with this’ if the United States attacked Iran, and adding that ‘the idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is completely nuts’.

The point is not that potential veiled US nuclear threats were in any way the cause of Iran’s nuclear-weapons programme, which began long before the Bush administration took office. But US nuclear threats, intentional or not, both play into the hands of domestic forces in Iran that favour developing nuclear weapons and reduce international diplomatic support for coercive diplomatic efforts to pressure Iran to end its defiance of UN Security Council resolutions requiring suspension of its enrichment programme. If the United States were to adopt a no-first-use doctrine, the temptation for US politicians to resort to veiled nuclear threats as part of coercive diplomacy against Iran or other potential proliferators would be reduced, as would the ability of Tehran to claim it faces nuclear threats.

The very fact that the UK Foreign Secretary feels compelled to characterize the US position as “completely nuts” — to me — is a sign of a declaratory policy FAIL.


  1. Nick Ritchie (History)

    A no first use declaratory policy and operational posture is fundamentally realistic because the only potentially credible, justifiable and conceivable (in terms of presidential willingness to push the button) scenario for use of nuclear weapons is in retaliation for a major nuclear strike or a conventional/NBC war against the US that threatens the very survival of the state, i.e. the USG will be destroyed through military defeat and hostile occupation and/or US society as we know it will be destroyed by being bombed past the point of recovery. Only then can threats of nuclear use hold water and consequently have some form of deterrent effect.

    The problem lies in the fact that it is very difficult for nuclear weapons/deterrent advocates to accept the really quite restrictive parameters on the credibility of nuclear threats leading to frequent demands for all manner of new nuclear policy, force structure and weapon design requirements to somehow fix the credibility problem in different strategic contexts – none of which can be empirically tested.

    As the late Herb York said in an interview for Sandia’s “US Strategic Nuclear Policy: An Oral History 1942-2004” DVD set, “the main use for nuclear weapons remains to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others. That has wide support within the defense community. Everything else is controversial.”

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Thanks for the comment. Are you joining us in Yverdon-les-Bains?

  3. Rwendland (History)

    Worth rembering that within a month of his ‘the idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is completely nuts’ comment five-year British Foreign Minister Jack Straw had been demoted by Tony Blair and replaced by Margaret Beckett (who had little Foreign experience). There was speculation at the time that this was because Jack Straw’s diplomacy-only views on the Iran situation might cause difficulties with the options the U.S. was considering, and because Jack Straw had more weight to resist Tony Blair’s views on foreign policy.

  4. Nick Ritchie (History)

    Jeffrey, I’m afraid not, I’m in your neck of the woods in DC next week.

  5. kerbihan

    Ah, the old NFU debate.

    I beg to disagree. Seems to me that the benefits of a NFU posture would be few and the costs many. To name one of the most significant: if the adversary believes it, then in times of a crisis it means he could do anything short of nuclear use and never risk nuclear retaliation. And ultimately -sorry for stating the obvious, what we should care about is not what Sagan, Straw, Lewis, Ritchie (or I) believe in, but what we think the adversary believes in.

    Does the slight possibility of a nuclear response incite an adversary to caution, more so than with the mere threat of conventional retaliation? I believe strongly that it is the case. Saddam did not fear US conventional strikes. KJI seems to genuinely fear the use of US NW against his country (in 2002-2005 there was a lot of interest in RNEP in North Korea).

    Most importantly perhaps, no State has ever used CBW against a nuclear-armed country: Egypt used CW against Yemen, but not against Israel in 1973; Iraq used CW against Iran, but not against Israel in 1991.

    And are we certain, given the amount of misperceptions of US nuclear policy (even before Bush), that non-allied countries would believe the United States if it changed its declaratory policy?

    In any case, taking a firm stand one way or the other in this debate requires value judgements.

  6. Adam (History)

    I’m wondering whether Sagan’s argument breaks down in the face of the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-state actors or by a faction of a failing state.

    Certain countries come to mind in which this seems like a non-impossible outcome. What is the proper (in the realist or the moral sense) policy prescription in such a case, assuming that the location of the fissile material is known?

  7. Matthew Hoey (History)

    The first thing that comes to mind when I hear “no first use” is Linton Brooks’ comments at the CEIP Conference in D.C. In the Panel titled: “Nuclear Order Build or Break.” Brooks stated that, “No-first-use is the least interesting of all the issues we’ll talk about in the next two days, and
    I haven’t looked at tomorrow’s agenda. (Laughter.) The Russians had a no-first-use policy for years when they called themselves Soviets. It was not true. They changed it. And most people didn’t notice, but somehow if we change ours in the other direction it will bring about Nirvana. It is inherent at the time of decision that presidents will make the decision they believe to be in the national interests of the United States, and they will not be constrained by what they said in past speeches.”

    Even in the Q&A segment of the talk he suggested the same when the no first use policy was suggested by a member of the audience.

    Now forgive me for playing the Devil’s Advocate, but the seriousness of our nuclear deterent is greatly reduced should we rule out first use. But most importantly is the comments by Brooks when he suggested that in a moment of crises the President is going to toss a no first use policy out the window if need be. A policy set during peace time may not be followed in a potential nuclear scenario. National security will be the priority – and the U.S. Government will sort it out later.

    All that aside forgive me for my comments, I hope for the elimination of nuclear weapons just as much as anyone – but a no first use in a climate when North Korea could steam roll over the ROK and Iran could threaten Israel such a policy does not instill the fear of god in them when they start making nuclear threats or when our sats see them readying a missile for launch with a warhead onboard.

  8. Steven Dolley (History)

    What’s the credible scenario here? What nation on Earth is going to attack the US with CBW, even if they don’t fear nuclear retaliation?

    Only one that even seems remotely possible is DPRK, but they would never believe a US NFU pledge anyway.

  9. Steven Dolley (History)

    Also, the US had a NFU pledge for non-nuclear-weapon states in compliance with the NPT from Jimmy Carter thru to Bush II, if I’m recalling correctly. I don’t recall the US getting dowsed with CBW during that period.

  10. V.S. (History)

    I observe that the postings here are very US-centric. The position of the US as a leader of a broader alliance is not very much discussed, and this is where people opposing the bold proposal by Dr. Sagan are mostly going to find their support among politicians and diplomats.

    I think that the problem with NFU, especially for the US, is not national security or defence needs of the US homeland per se.

    As Nick Ritchie says the only possible scenario that the US could be envisaged using nukes would be “a major nuclear strike or a conventional/NBC war against the US that threatens the very survival of the state, i.e. the USG will be destroyed through military defeat and hostile occupation and/or US society as we know it will be destroyed by being bombed past the point of recovery.”

    But seriously I don’t think that there is any power or alliance of powers in our planet today that can do that to the US only by conventional or even Chem-Bio-Cyberwarfare means. They would have to strike with nukes in order to induce such devastation to the US, but then we are not talking about a first use any more but about a retaliatory strike.

    In my oppinion the great problem for the US to declare a NFU policy is that they have extended their deterrent to so many other countries, some of which are located in sensitive regions right next to powerful adversaries both theirs and of the US/West/NATO a.k.a. “the Free World”.

    To be the Devil’s advocate here, what’s the value of an extended detterent to South Korea, for instance, if it includes a NFU policy? It’s like saying to the DPRK or to China, well if you can take over this country or defeat this country and any of our forces stationed there without the use of nukes then that’s cool with us. We’ll try our best sending reinforcements and everything but if we fail, we fail, we won’t escalate.

    It’s true that when you extend your deterrent, you take up the weaknesses of your ally and your ally’s geostrategic position (along of course with their advantages).

    An alternative could be for the US to declare a “partial NFU” ?!? on a strategic level (when it comes to defending the US from direct threats by other global powers) or when dealing with other issues (i.e. intervention overseas), but retain a first strike option when it comes to defending the “very existence” of it’s allies. But that would be so weird. Having in place for your allies a much harder-line defence policy than for yourself. Or would it?

    Another alternative: to declare a (nominal)NFU policy under many reservations and conditions. But then, it’s not really an NFU. An NFU by definition has to be absolute and unequivocal, thus unconditional.

    Another alternative would be to have old ideas like the MLF (so that technically you are not the one fending off for your allies but you do it collectively) coming back to haunt us.

    In the end I think that if the US and other NWS are to go down this direction, and I think they should, they should start first with providing universal Negative Security Assurances to NNWS (maybe unconditional, maybe legally-binding as well).

    As of today the NWS are very reluctant (except from China of course that has a NFU policy)to even do this. Then how realistic is it to ask from them to take such an enormous “leap of faith” and provide NFU assurances? I wish they would but maybe in this case it’s more prudent to take a step a time.

  11. kerbihan

    “Also, the US had a NFU pledge for non-nuclear-weapon states in compliance with the NPT from Jimmy Carter thru to Bush II, if I’m recalling correctly.”

    Not correct actually. There were reservations attached to the 1978 NSA statement. Then Bush 1 (and Cheney) inaugurated the “deliberate ambiguity” policy, which Clinton repeated.

    There’s also the whole legal issue of “belligerent reprisals”, but that would deserve a broader and complex discussion.

    “I don’t recall the US getting dowsed with CBW during that period”

    A weak argument and a mostly irrelevant one, since until 1990 the risks were different, and the policy has never been NFU anyway: it was only NSA, qualified from the onset.

    Agree with V.S. that extended deterrence could be seen as weakened by a NFU posture. But it’s up to the Eastern Europeans (and the Russians) and the Japanese (and the Chinese and North Koreans) to judge that.

  12. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Does a no first use promise make any sense without being tied to the outcome of a conventional war? If a nation were so irrational to launch a preemptive strategic counterforce strike. What good would a no first use ‘policy’ mean in face of a nation that thinks it must go so such extreme?

    The only nation I knew of that felt it could make such a promise was the USSR, and as we all know was tied to a theoretical NATO – Warsaw Pact confrontation. By my understanding, the Soviets felt secure in keeping this promise because they thought their conventional forces could overwhelm NATO if they chose to invade, and defend against a NATO push to liberate West Berlin from another WP blockade. This belief was augmented by NATO’s belief that Western armor would not be able to repel a WP invasion and the West’s unwillingness to make a no first use pledge itself.

    I have to ask myself if the Soviet no first use policy contributed to stability. Because as we all now know, the WP would have had a very nasty surprise with regards to the effectiveness of Western conventional hardware, as well as the stability of the WP itself. My cousin’s husband was a Lt in the Polish army and his unit trained to defend Poland against the USSR. So, the question is how would the USSR have responded to the double shock of Western technological superiority and mutiny in the Warsaw Pact? I think we all know what would have happened to the no first use polity. It would have meant nothing.

  13. Distiller (History)

    “No First Use” is way too general. No first use of strategic weapons – ok.

    But “No First Use” of tactical weapons is nonsense. For example as large EMP weapons, at sea, as bunker busters, or against large scale ground assaults. Can’t rule out first use in any of these scenarios.

  14. kerbihan

    @Andrew: interesting post. But “the Soviets felt secure in keeping this promise”, and “the WP would have had a very nasty surprise”? Turns out that we were in for a surprise too; WP archives seem to indicate that there was planning for early and large-scale use of TNW on Europe. Perhaps because we convinced them that we would have had to cross the threshold after a few days of fight. So, by that logic, maybe we should have had a NFU policy. But then again – they would not have believed us, would they? Ah, the dilemmas of deterrence.

  15. kme

    At the root, you must either define the use of nuclear weapons as immoral and unjustified, or as a legitimate military option.

    If it’s the former, then NFU (and non-proliferation) is appropriate; if it’s the latter, then the entire idea of non-proliferation is called into question.

  16. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    — kerbihan · Jun 20, 10:29 AM · “Turns out that we were in for a surprise too; WP archives seem to indicate that there was planning for early and large-scale use of TNW on Europe.”

    Very easy to believe for the given reasons. Perhaps the footprint of a real NFU pledge would be to remove TNW’s from divisional control and place them under strategic commands. Many of the more right-wingers of the day just assumed that NATO airfields would come under nuclear attack from the get go. My own thoughts are along the lines that the civilian leadership would hesitate. But hey, once the war starts I would imagine the the no-nukers would start looking a bit more well reasoned. Ah, the beauty of human schools of thought. In peace time the doves look like irrational players who place far too much faith in the better nature of the opposing force. While the (chicken)hawks seem well reasoned and thought out. Come war time against a nuclear foe, all that reverses. We’re not really cut out by nature to have these things.

  17. kerbihan

    Andrew, many good points in your post. But I don’t think that nukes are in the possession of “divisional commanders” anymore in any country. (What the Russians, Chinese, Pakistanis etc. would do at their DEFCON-1 equivalent I don’t know, though.)

  18. Steven Dolley (History)

    WP archives seem to indicate that there was planning for early and large-scale use of TNW on Europe.

    Yes…because they feared preemptive strikes on their TNW storage facilities by US nuclear weapons. It was a use-or-lose context. First-use policy exacerbated that risk, rather than deterring it.

  19. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    — kerbihan · Jun 23, 11:14 AM
    I don’t think that nukes are in the possession of “divisional commanders” anymore in any country.

    A good point, but I was speaking to a time when there was a much harder link of first use to real world situations. The only driver these days for first use is the exceptionally poor leadership the world has had to endure for the past 9 years. If there is anyone in power who thinks there is a crisis that demands first use of nuclear weapons these days they are either insane or are so weak as to have no business owning nuclear weapons in the first place. Nuclear weapons should not be your first and only option. Gosh, I hope I don’t have to eat those words.

    I think the NATO WP stand off is the perfect real world arena where a no first use plolicy really comes into being as a logical as well as a political variable. I think what everyone here has done a pretty good job in putting into context is that the needs of deterrence, the ambiguity of determining true intent, and the pressure of crisis might make a no first use pledge useless.

    As an aside, would not an aircraft carrier or a submarine be the Naval equiv of a division? And as you said, once the alert level reaches a high enough level, that’s it, nuclear weapons will be distributed on a divisional level. At that point I’d assume all bets are off.