Joshua PollackN, FU

It can be surprising just how strongly people tend to feel about nuclear weapons declaratory policy.

The entire idea of declaratory policy, after all, comes down to words. It controls no instruments, makes no irrevocable commitments, and lacks the binding force of law. It amounts to an overt exercise in what the psychologists call impression management. As someone once told Janne Nolan, the standing promise of the United States not to use nuclear weapons under certain circumstances – the so-called Negative Security Assurances, or NSA – boils down to “just a policy.”

(As words go, too, the NSA’s are rather vague.)

Still and all, the strength of the feelings surrounding declaratory policy comes through loud and clear in an exchange of views in the current issue of Survival on whether to adopt a nuclear no-first-use pledge, or NFU, a long-standing proposal recently mooted again by Scott Sagan. For some, NFU would be too weak and therefore meaningless. For others, it would be too strong, tying the hands of the United States when it absolutely, positively has to nuke somebody.

The truth almost certainly lies in between. Michael Gerson – that’s Michael “I’m Not the Speechwriter Guy” Gerson – nailed it when he described the power of NFU as stemming from “audience costs.” This idea, sometimes also described in terms of costly signaling, means that a leader or a state can try to commit itself to a course of action by threatening itself with humiliation if it does not follow through. This is essentially the same reasoning involved in taking a public oath. You can break an oath, but really don’t want to, other things being equal. For this reason, the leader of an NFU state would be reluctant to threaten first nuclear use in a crisis.

My latest column in the Bulletin takes a somewhat different tack. While I’m in favor of NFU, I don’t think it should be pigeonholed as “declaratory policy.” It should be treated as policy policy, laid down in an Executive Order. (Yeah, right there in the Federal Register.) As Commander-in-Chief, of course, the President can override his own standing orders in a pinch, but in the meantime, they should form the basis of guidance for planners.

Why is this distinction important? For one thing, declarations enjoy greater credibility when something more than reputation stands behind them. And President Obama has promised – rather publicly, although no proper oath was sworn – to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

This is a good idea because, as I’ve sought to explain in the column, the present role of nuclear weapons is rather broad and nebulous. And it’s just that much harder to persuade countries outside of the U.S. alliance system that nonproliferation is in their interest, too, if it enforces an oligopoly on weapons intended in part for what Thomas Schelling called “compellence” and Alexander George called “coercive diplomacy.” Call it nuclear blackmail, if you like.

Clausewitz on the Bomb

At some point, too, we really ought to decide for ourselves what our nuclear weapons are for. Perspectives vary, so much so that the Perry-Schlesinger Strategic Posture Commission, for example, didn’t make a clear statement about it.*

The nature of nuclear weapons has tended to override attempts to harness them to sensible policy objectives. Policy, as Carl von Clausewitz put it,

converts the overwhelmingly destructive element of war into a mere instrument. It changes the terrible battle-sword that a man needs both hands and his entire strength to wield, and with which he strikes home once and no more, into a light, handy rapier—sometimes just a foil for the exchange of thrusts, feints and parries.

Despite efforts to craft limited nuclear options, there are in the final analysis no thermonuclear rapiers or atomic foils. It’s “terrible battle-sword” all the way. As a consequence, nuclear policy debates have always seemed especially susceptible to arguments that spring less from Clausewitzian strategic calculations than from hawkish or dovish sentiments, pure and simple. In settings like Perry-Schlesinger, the sentiments more or less cancel each other out, leaving matters not very far from where they started. (See the chapter on declaratory policy.)

So, with the Soviet Union almost two decades in the grave, we’re still poised to conduct an annihilating strike on Russia in response to the Red Army’s thrust through the Fulda Gap. And we explain this posture to the world in terms of North Korea’s or Syria’s chemical weapons program. This just makes no sense at all. It’s a function of inertia. Up to now, no President has been ready for the massive exertions required to force change, but the pressing need to overhaul the nonproliferation regime could finally produce that impetus.

* There is no clear joint statement, to be exact. The Chairman’s Preface is another matter.


  1. Allen Thomson

    > nuclear weapons declaratory policy.

    This reminds me of the ukazaniye conflict that went on in the CIA’s Office of Strategic Research around 1980.

    Thanks to a few Soviet defectors who’d been to higher military schools, OSR learned that the course material included at a modestly classified level the public statement that the CPSU Central Committee had issued an ukazaniye (decree/instruction) that the USSR would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Other examples made it pretty clear that “Central Committee” was shorthand for the Politburo and that ukazaniya were generally supposed to be taken seriously.

    There followed an intense and prolonged battle, never resolved that I know of, between analysts who thought the Soviet military would pay attention to the ukazaniye and those who didn’t.

  2. Haninah (History)

    Brilliant column, especially the part on Clausewitz and the bomb. I’m no expert in these matters, but it seems to me that things get even more complex if you accept Martin van Creveld’s notion that modern foreign policy is increasingly about “non-Clausewitzian” models of war – especially conflicts that are best understood as what he calls existential, rather than political, warfare. I think that when it comes to “conventional” (that is, non-nuclear) warfare, that thesis is pretty clearly sound (though I’m sure there are some who will disagree). Perhaps some of the debates about nuclear terrorism and “non-deterability” reflect the fact that while Clausewitz’s views are hard enough to apply to nuclear policy when dealing with “traditional” actors (as you ably point out), the analysis gets even tougher when the applicability of the theory is uncertain as to both the mode of conflict and some of the actors involved.

  3. scud

    I think you’re missing a big part of the picture. A large part of deterrence policy is non-Clausewitzian for sure – though one might argue about that. But blaming “inertia” does not do justice to the work of government officials (who actually sometimes even think about those issues, yes), to say nothing about how Heads of States and Government themselves grasp (sometimes intuitively) the meaning of these things. From my experience, their continued adherence to a unrestricted nuclear deterrence concept (that is: no NFU, no NFU-WMD) comes down to two basic and simple ideas: keep the adversary guessing, and most importantly, maintain your own freedom of action. The rest is for academics (or for diplomats).

  4. Josh (History)


    There’s more to life than freedom of action and keeping adversaries guessing. That would be so even if one were to imagine that the entire outside world consisted of adversaries. As Thomas Schelling pointed out (somewhere or other — I don’t have the books in front of me at the moment) you can’t really use a threat of punishment to deter someone from taking an unwelcome action if you cannot also assure them that you won’t punish them if they refrain. So flexibility and uncertainty don’t always work in our favor.

    But my larger point here is that we should be working much harder to communicate our intentions not to our enemies, and not to our allies, but to the countries in between, the ones we’re trying to recruit to our nonproliferation agenda.


    Let’s not overthink this stuff. After all, nuclear strategy is just like strategy in chess — if nobody had ever played a game of chess and if people weren’t completely sure what all the pieces did. And if it was fairly certain that both players and everyone they knew would be put to death after the first or second move.

    A lot of smart and creative people have thought and written about it, but there are no practitioners of nuclear strategy.

  5. scud

    Josh: your larger point is entirely fair, and I agree with it. Mine is that in the real world, deterrence considerations will always trump non-proliferation ones when governments are crafting nuclear policy. (Whether or not it’s a rational prioritization is another matter.) So these nuclear doctrine choices all come down to a costs and benefits matrix.

    BTW, you may be overstating the difference between “declaratory policy” and “legally-binding policy”. The US is not China or Iran: the system and the culture (including its legal dimension) does not allow for significant inconsistencies between the official language (even without an EO) and the planning. I had interesting conversations with DoD lawyers some years ago about this.

    And about “there are no practitioners of nuclear strategy”: this reminds me of one of my favorites, I think it was William Kauffman: “General, I’ve fought as many nuclear wars as you have”.

  6. Robichaud

    Nice post, and excellent article in the Bulletin.

    The problem about such a presidential directive is that it would contradict the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (which by all accounts will not endorse “no first use”). I expect the NPR will create a lot of constraints on both declaratory policy and force structure.

  7. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I still think the scale of your nuclear arsenal should be in proportion to the probable failures of your conventional forces and the consequences that follow should your conventional forces fail. I think that this logic also applies even to the non/semi state player. Even the most probable first use of nuclear weapons by proxy where a Pakistani bomb were detonated in a city. Easily, such a strike would justify occupation and dissolution of the Pakistani state if for anything failing to secure its arsenal. And this response could be done by conventional means under a very stern threat of what were to happen if too much of a fight were offered. A spasm nuclear counter strike is not the best way to go about avenging such a event. However states need to understand that there will be consequence for failing to maintain and secure their nuclear arsenals. Obviously this would only work with small nuclear powers.