In July 2016, reports in U.S. newspapers indicated the Obama Administration considered adopting a declaratory policy stating that the United States would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in conflict. Subsequent reports, however, indicated that the United States was unlikely to adopt this particular change in U.S. declaratory policy before the end of the Obama Administration because both military and civilian officials in the Administration oppose the declaration of a “no first use” policy. The press reported that, during deliberations on the policy change, Pentagon officials argued that current ambiguity provides the President with options in a crisis. For example, Admiral Haney, the Commander in Chief of Strategic Command, noted that the shift could undermine deterrence and stability in an uncertain security environment. The reports stated that Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Carter also raised concerns about the possibility that a “no first use” policy could undermine the confidence and security of U.S. allies. The press reported that several U.S. allies also weighed in against the change in policy. Some in the U.S. Congress, like Senator Dianne Feinstein, argued that the only moral use for U.S. nuclear weapons is as a deterrent to their use. Others, including Representative Mac Thornberry and a number of Republican Senators, argued that changes in U.S. nuclear policy could lead to a more dangerous world by undermining nuclear deterrence and “shattering the trust” of U.S. allies.
This article was originally published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on 29 August 2016.
Myth has it that Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and brought it down from Mount Olympus to Earth for the betterment of humankind. Another, more deadly type of fire was brought to the world on 16 July 1945 when the first nuclear explosive device was detonated at the Alamogordo Test Range in the desert of New Mexico, USA. In the intervening seven decades, nine different States have carried out over 2000 nuclear explosions, polluting the world’s oceans, atmosphere and land with devastating health effects on many millions of people and the environment.
Suffering from the radiological effects on human health and the environment, Kazakhstan took the initiative in promoting the adoption of 29 August as the International Day Against Nuclear Tests by the United Nations General Assembly on 2 December 2009 through Resolution 64/35.
It marks the day on which President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan finally closed down the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site on 29 August 1991, signaling that nuclear explosions would never again resonate against the Degelen mountains and in the plains of Central Asia.
The United States first used nuclear weapons more than 70 years ago on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fearing the threat from massive Soviet conventional forces and possible large-scale use of chemical and biological weapons, U.S. military and political leaders decided to keep the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Today, the United States in the world’s dominant global military power and the Soviet Union is long gone. The Cold War-era policy of not ruling out nuclear first-use poses a grave risk to the security of the United States and is not suitable for today’s global security and political environment.
The greatest threat to the United States and to any nation is from the enormous and indiscriminate destructive effects of nuclear weapons. It is in the interest of the United States that, as long as these weapons exist, all nuclear-armed states agree that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to respond to a nuclear attack by other nuclear-armed states and only when the survival of the state or one of its allies is at stake. It is time for the United States to adopt this policy.
In April 2009, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”
Led by Russia and the United States, the world reduced the nuclear stockpile from 60,000 weapons to about 16,000 held by nine nations. The total still poses a grave global threat. Any nuclear attack or accident would kill many, devastating an entire region, which in turn would revive demands for abolition, explains Bennett Ramberg, author and a former policy analyst in the US Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs during the George H.W. administration. No country has used the bomb since World War II, he explains, and “A presumption emerged that a nuclear-use taboo overwhelms any inclination toward nuclear use.” The potential for nuclear catastrophe runs high in an era of terrorism and chaos emerging out of failed states, but prevention is possible, too. Global agreement is required, notes Ramberg, and he points to the 1946 Baruch Plan as a foundation. The plan calls for an international authority to manage atomic energy and an end to manufacturing nuclear weapons.
Seventy years ago this month the United States placed on the global agenda a proposal that would have eliminated nuclear weapons for all time. Drawing on the US State Department’s Acheson-Lilienthal scientific advisory study, the Truman administration turned to the long-time confidant of presidents, Bernard Baruch, to craft a proposal for global action.
In June 1946, Baruch appeared before the newly constituted UN Atomic Energy Commission to present the nuclear abolition plan that would come to bear his name. He called for establishment of an International Atomic Development Authority that would retain “managerial control or ownership of all atomic energy potentially dangerous to world security,” eliminate weapons manufacturing and dispose of all existing bombs while asserting “power to control, inspect, license all other atomic activities” coupled with assured enforcement. Had Cold War politics not intervened – Stalin pressed his scientists to build a competitive Soviet bomb as rapidly as possible – the nuclear Damocles Sword that’s hung over the world ever since might have been avoided.
The recent Nuclear Security Summit 2016 in Washington DC highlighted the pervasive threat of nuclear terrorism, for which governments see the need to commit more resources and prioritise the issue as a primary national security agenda.
Since the biennial Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) ended its 2016 instalment in the United States, stakeholders and policy analysts are left searching for an equivalent high-level platform with the same mission. The critical role to enhance nuclear security has expanded with the threat of nuclear terrorism growing. Investigative works on the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels highlighted that terrorist organisations could be after radiological materials that will enable them to construct a crude nuclear bomb.
During the nongovernmental experts meeting of the NSS, Argentine ambassador Rafael Mariano Grossi mentioned that, unlike nuclear safety which has established quantitative guidelines, nuclear security requires variable policing efforts that are difficult to agree upon at the international level. Instruments such as the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) have not been universally adopted, and could therefore pose a challenge in dealing with terrorism that is global in nature. As such, initiatives to deal with the threats of nuclear terrorism have been mostly adopted at the national level.