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US nuclear weapons policy change unlikely

Michael KniggeAugust 15, 2016

The Obama administration is reportedly mulling a change in its nuclear arms policy that would rule out using them first in a conflict. Such a move is not only unlikely - it would also be little more than symbolism.

Obama speaks at American University
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

In the waning days of his presidency, Barack Obama is harkening back to the bold vision he laid out in his first major foreign policy address as president in Prague in April 2009. In that address, the new president sketched his vision for world without nuclear weapons, declaring nuclear disarmament a key goal for his administration.

Now, more than seven years later the Obama administration is apparently considering changing the US nuclear posture by issuing a declaration stating that Washington would not use nuclear weapons first in a military conflict. President Obama would not need Congressional approval to do so.

But the administration's potential move has triggered opposition both domestically and from allies in Asia and Europe - even though it would have little substance in itself.

Symbolism versus real change

"I think it's more symbolic than anything else," said Andrew Futter, a scholar of nuclear weapons issues at the University of Leicester.

"To mean anything there need to be changes in the actual force posture that reflect the move toward no-first-use," explained Shannon N. Kile, an American who heads the Nuclear Weapons Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and supports, in principle, the idea of a no-first-use policy.

But, Kile added, the Soviet Union and later Russia had a no-first-use policy well into the 1990s even though it was well known that it did not reflect Russian military planning and doctrine. That's why to be more than empty rhetoric, a US declaration would also have to include a move away from keeping nuclear weapons on a "hair-trigger alert," Kile said.

Obama speaks at Nuclear Security Summit
Obama regularly convened nuclear security summits with global leadersImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Nuclear weapons on a hair-trigger alert are ready for rapid deployment in minutes around the clock.

Weapons on high alert

"Right now the US has about 900 nuclear weapons on high alert at all times. Russia has a similar number," Kile said. In order for a no-first use declaration to have any sort of meaning, the US would need to "de-alert" some of its weapons, he added.

That the US would do so unilaterally is extremely unlikely, he said, as this would be much more controversial and concrete than merely issuing a declaration of no-first-use intent.

Given the domestic and international resistance to Obama's ideas even a no-strings-attached no-first-use policy is now unlikely to happen. "The Obama administration would be very loath to do anything that undermines the further confidence of either the European or Asian allies," said Futter.

Bad timing

Marco Fey, an arms control expert at the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt (PRIF), who also principally supports the idea, said the timing for such an initiative is off.

"Right now, with the crisis with Russia over Ukraine and also the crisis with North Korea, it might not be the best time for such a policy change," he said. "It is a pity that Obama comes up with this almost upon leaving the White House."

The fact that Obama has again resurrected the no-first-use policy, first considered in 2010, can be interpreted as a sign that he feels his nuclear disarmament agenda is mostly unfinished business: "I think there is a feeling that he hasn't achieved as much as he wanted," Futter said. "In reality what has been actually achieved is not a great deal."

Nuclear public diplomacy

Obama at Hiroshima Peace Memorial, 2016
Obama made history as the first sitting US president to visit HiroshimaImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Watson

The creation of the biannual international nuclear summit as well as Obama's visit to Hiroshima, the first ever by a sitting US president, were invaluable efforts to bring nuclear disarmament back on the global agenda, the experts say.

But in practical terms Obama's only major nuclear disarmament success is the new START agreement with Russia, slashing the size of both countries' strategic nuclear missile arsenals. "Yes, the new START treaty was important and symbolic, but actually this was just getting down to the realistic levels of what the US and Russians thought they needed anyway," Futter said.

The experts also concede that partisan obstruction in Congress and institutional resistance in the Pentagon as well as global events made it nearly impossible to get anything done on nuclear disarmament.

Still, Kile said, Obama, particularly with his Prague speech, "built up expectations in a way that we can only be disappointed."

Or as Fey put it: "His plans met reality."