East Asia Nuclear Policy Project
Morton H. Halperin, The Nuclear Dimension of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Section 3, "American Nuclear Options (II)"


American Nuclear Options II

Keeping in mind this range of purposes for which the United States might seek to use its nuclear weapons, there are three basic, available options for U.S. policy: 1) maintaining the basic current U.S. nuclear policy, 2) stigmatizing nuclear weapons and drastically reducing nuclear arsenals and reliance on nuclear weapons, and 3) reemphasizing the role of nuclear weapons, especially in dealing with rogue states.

1. Current U.S. Nuclear Policy

One option for the United States is to maintain its current nuclear policy with minor changes to respond to specific needs. The current policy has remained in place for more than forty years despite an inherent contradiction: on the one hand, the United States has sought to build up its own nuclear capability and to reserve the right to threaten to use-and to use-nuclear weapons whenever it believed that its interests could be advanced by doing so. Yet on the other hand, the United States has sought to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and has taken steps to advance that goal, such as through the NPT, which had the potential to undermine U.S. efforts to rely on nuclear weapons for a range of security needs.13

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, U.S. nuclear policy still exhibits this tension. While taking steps to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and while drastically reducing its deployment of nuclear weapons abroad and at sea, the United States continues to assert the right to use nuclear weapons first in a variety of situations, including in response to conventional attacks by a nuclear weapons state or any country allied to a nuclear power. Furthermore, nuclear weapons are still stored in Europe and the U.S. government approaches all efforts to create nuclear free zones with caution. Finally, the United States refuses to begin negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons, proclaiming that nuclear deterrence will be an element of U.S. policy for the foreseeable future.14 It justifies continuing to rely on nuclear weapons in large part on the grounds that its policy of deterrence contributes to nuclear non-proliferation by helping to persuade countries such as Japan and South Korea that they have no need to develop nuclear weapons.

Current policy on the role of nuclear weapons in addressing threats of chemical or biological weapons is not clearly articulated but appears to be roughly this: as a matter of "policy," the administration adheres to the negative security assurances associated with the NPT, which prohibit the United States from threatening to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear state party to the NPT unless it is engaged in aggression supported by a nuclear power. This position would have ruled out the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War even if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons. However, the administration has declined to incorporate this "policy" into any binding international legal obligation and intimates that states that use any weapon of mass destruction might be subject to a nuclear attack.15

The nuclear policy review concluded by the Clinton administration at the end of 1997 reaffirmed these positions, although it did eliminate the requirement to "prevail" in a nuclear exchange with Russia,16 a change necessary to permit the United States to move to the levels in START III to which the president has already agreed. No one seemed to fear that this adjustment would undermine the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent; however, no other aspects of U.S. policy were changed.17

2. Stigmatizing Nuclear Weapons

Under this option, the United States would remove the ambiguity in its nuclear policy by seeking to stigmatize nuclear weapons.18 While stopping short of trying to eliminate all nuclear weapons in the short term, the United States would seek a world with a drastically reduced nuclear capability in which no state-including the United States-maintained nuclear weapons on alert or tried to use them for any purpose other than deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others.

Indeed, the first steps that the United States would take if it decided to move decisively in this direction would be to commit itself to a no-first use policy, negotiate no-first use agreements with any of the other nuclear weapons states willing to enter into such agreements (including China, which has proposed such an accord) and offer absolute assurances to all other states that it will not initiate the use of nuclear weapons.

To address the problem of chemical and biological weapons, the United States would make it clear that it would respond to any use of such weapons with overwhelming conventional force and that any military that used these weapons would be defeated on the battlefield and forced to accept an unconditional surrender. Furthermore, the government that ordered such use would be removed from power and those who gave or carried out the orders would be tried by an international tribunal and, if convicted, given an appropriate sentence. These warnings are both a more credible threat than a nuclear attack, which would kill many innocent civilians, and more consistent with a program to deter the use of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction.

Combined with the negative assurances would be positive assurances given through the U.N. Security Council to come to the aid of any country threatened with the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. U.S. allies, including Germany, Japan, and Korea, would be given specific assurances that the United States would use whatever means were necessary to neutralize any threat of nuclear weapons use against them, including- if appropriate and necessary-by using nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack.

In the context of significant progress toward nuclear disarmament, one could imagine reaching a point in which the response even to a nuclear attack on any state was viewed as the responsibility of the international community as a whole, with the U.N. Security Council committed to take action and with individual nuclear weapons states no longer obliged to respond with nuclear weapons. Of course, what has been called "existential" deterrence would still exist. That is, the mere fact that the United States had nuclear weapons and had a treaty commitment to Japan would create the possibility that the United States would use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack on Japan, even if it was not committed to doing so. This residual threat exists now and would exist in a world in which the United States had greatly reduced its nuclear arsenal and had committed itself not to use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack on its own territory. (One could, of course, contemplate going even further and asking the nuclear weapons states to respond with conventional force even to a nuclear attack on their territory or only to use nuclear weapons when authorized to do so by the U.N. Security Council.)

Nonetheless, I would move very cautiously in this direction for fear of stimulating the very nuclear proliferation that we are trying to avoid. A statement now by the United States that it would rule out the use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack on Japan would generate very serious disquiet on the part of Japanese leaders. Many would take it as the first step in a U.S. plan to end its security commitment to Japan. The benefits of such a move are very elusive. I would prefer that the United States move in the other direction, and offer states that desire such a pledge a clear U.S. commitment to come to their aid with nuclear weapons if they are subjected to a nuclear attack.

Furthermore, under the option of stigmatizing nuclear weapons, the U.S. nuclear posture would be redesigned based on the assumption that U.S. forces would not fire on warning and would not fire quickly or massively after a nuclear attack on the United States. Most, if not all, forces would be de-alerted in a transparent way. The remaining nuclear weapons would be brought home from Europe, and the United States would commit itself to only storing nuclear weapons on its own territory. Finally, in negotiations first with Russia and then with the other three nuclear weapons states, the United States would seek to reduce nuclear arsenals to first thousands and then hundreds of weapons, all de-alerted and subject to international inspection.

3. Reemphasizing the Role of Nuclear Weapons

Without abandoning such elements of the de-legitimation effort as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the United States has the option of seeking to enhance the role of nuclear weapons in its security policy.

In choosing this option, first the United States would make clear that the 2,000 to 2,500 strategic warhead limit that it has tentatively agreed to in START III is as low as it is willing to go and that it is not willing to give up its right to strike first or its capacity to quickly inflict massive damage on Russia or any other country. Second, the United States would interpret the CTBT narrowly so as to permit a vigorous stockpile stewardship program and other activities that would lead to the development of new types of nuclear weapons.

It is in addressing rogue states that there appears to be the most pressure to reverse the actions that have reduced the U.S. flexibility to threaten to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, including pledges to refrain from using nuclear weapons first and from developing new types of nuclear weapons. Just as it has declared a group of states to be outside the norms that govern international trade and therefore to be subject to various forms of embargo, the United States could declare that certain states have put themselves outside the framework of the NPT-even if they are members certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be in good standing-and are therefore subject to nuclear retaliation.

Thus, under this option, the United States would assert the right to use nuclear weapons first against any state that it labels as a rogue state in response to the use of chemical or biological weapons, to conventional cross border aggression, to military action within its own borders, or to efforts to build weapons of mass destruction.

To back up these threats, the United States would develop and deploy nuclear weapons designed against the forces of these countries and would again station nuclear weapons on ships and in bases around the world to make this threat credible. Finally, under the option of reemphasizing the role of nuclear weapons, the United States would resist further expansion of the nuclear free zone concept.

Go to next section

13 The U.S. government does not view these methods as an inherent contradiction in U.S. nuclear posture. The policy has been to maintain overwhelming nuclear force and to try to prevent other people from getting nuclear weapons. According to Slocombe, there is a "continuing American and global interest in a deliberate process to further reduce - and ultimately eliminate - nuclear weapons," yet the United States is "not yet at the point where we can eliminate our nuclear weapons," and that "A key conclusion of the Administration's National Security Strategy is that 'the United States will retain a triad of strategic nuclear forces sufficient to deter any future hostile foreign leadership with access to strategic nuclear forces from acting against our vital interests and to convince it that seeking a nuclear advantage would be futile." (12 February 1997).Back

14 That the United States has no intention of renouncing nuclear deterrence as a viable foreign policy tool is made clear not only in the Slocombe statement cited above, but in a statement by John D. Holum, Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, in which he details the U.S. position on the contentious issue. Holum presented his statement on December 2, 1996, at an international seminar on nuclear disarmament in Kyoto that followed the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Back

15 For example, during a U.S. Department of State Press Briefing on February 5, 1998, in addressing reports that the United States was planning to use nuclear weapons to destroy chemical and biological storage facilities in Iraq, department spokesman James P. Rubin explained that, "If any country were foolish enough to attack the United States, our allies, or our forces, with chemical or biological weapons, our response would be swift, devastating and overwhelming. We have worked hard to fashion non-nuclear responses to the threat or use of weapons of mass destruction, in order to give military commanders and the President a range of options from which to choose. As Secretary Perry said in 1996, we are able to mount a devastating response without using nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, we do not rule out in advance any capability available to us. I stress that these policies have to do with a situation in which the U.S., our allies and our forces have been attacked with chemical or biological weapons."

Likewise, in a U.S. Department of Defense News Briefing on January 27, 1998, department spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon reaffirmed that the United States would "respond decisively with devastating force" in response to weapons of mass destruction. When asked whether nuclear penetrating bombs had been ruled out in addressing buried targets, Bacon responded, "I don't think we've ruled anything in or out in this regard. Our position is that we would respond very aggressively." Back

16 Smith, "Clinton Directive Changes Strategy on Nuclear Arms." Back

17 In Morton H. Halperin, Nuclear Fallacy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1987): 23-5, I argue that an unwarranted faith of Washington bureaucrats in the effectiveness of nuclear threats "is the greatest single obstacle to the adoption of a new American nuclear policy that would substantially reduce the possibility of nuclear war." Back

18 For an example of a model of nuclear forces consistent with stigmatizing the use and production of nuclear weapons, see Halperin, Nuclear Fallacy: 55-60; and for recent reports advocating this approach, see the Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (August 1996) and The National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) report, The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy (June 1997). Back


Global Peace and Security Program Northeast Asia Peace and Security Network DPRK Renewable Energy Project Nuclear Policy Project Non-Nuclear NATO Network Related Nautilus Projects NAPSNet Daily Report NAPSNet Special Reports NATO Flash Nuclear Policy Update South Asia Nuclear Dialogue Nautilus Institute Publications Policy Forum Online Signup for Nautilus Email Services Nautilus Research Kiosk Send Feedback Global Peace and Security Program Staff Nautilus Institute Home Energy, Security and Environment Globalization and Governance Youth/Pegasus Program Digital Library Search the Nautilus Site