Alliances and No First Use

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The Bill Clinton Administration made a questionable call to expand NATO after the Cold War ended. The George W. Bush Administration made matters far worse by expanding NATO up to Russia’s border in the Baltics and pushing club membership further east, lobbying to include even Ukraine and Georgia. The action/reaction syndrome then kicked in – not with a strategic arms race, since force levels remained bounded by treaty — but by Russian countermoves against NATO expansion.

A few sage quotes on alliances from my shoeboxes filled with 4X6 cards:

“An alliance is like a chain. It is not made stronger by adding weak links to it.”
–Walter Lippmann, “Today and Tomorrow” column, 1952

“An alliance is effective only to the extent that it reflects a common purpose and that it represents an accretion of strength to its members.”
–Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, 1957

“Europeans aren’t willing to pay for our version of the threat.”
–Leonard Sullivan, talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1985

“No alliance lasts forever; it can only hope to outlive the threat that inspired it.”
–Richard Betts, “NATO’s Mid-Life Crisis,” 1989.

“Alliances are worthwhile when they put into words a real community of interests; otherwise they lead only to confusion and disaster.”
–A.J.P. Taylor, Origins of the Second World War, 1962

Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and shadow wars in eastern Ukraine and Georgia have given NATO allies more reason to cohere, but nativism is on the rise and sluggish economies provide insufficient means for the common defense. Britain’s vote to exit from the European Union will exacerbate financial woes and ensure that burden-sharing will be more lopsided in the future than in the past.

And yet, commitments have been made. U.S. withdrawal from and neglect of alliances is not an option. China’s regional ambitions and North Korea’s nuclear and missile antics raise similar questions in the Pacific: How best to shore up allies? The U.S. nuclear umbrella isn’t going away, but does Washington’s stated willingness to use nuclear weapons first still matter? Does it help? Is it necessary?

Washington has both useful and unhelpful means to respond to the needs and concerns of allies. Upgrades in conventional defense are essential. A commitment to defend allies by being willing to use nuclear weapons first isn’t. Two first-use postures – Russia’s and the United States – are not better than one, especially when the United States has the means to raise, rather than lower, the nuclear threshold.

A first-use posture doesn’t contribute to conventional defense by inducing caution, as has been abundantly clear. It’s a crutch that reflects a time when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact enjoyed significant conventional military and logistical advantages over NATO. Had Washington jettisoned its first-use posture when the Soviet Union collapsed and its Warsaw Pact allies joined NATO, no one in NATO would now be working overtime to re-institute the option of first use in response to Russia’s nuclear bluster. Instead, NATO would focus as best it can on raising the nuclear threshold by strengthening the common defense in visible and substantive ways – as it is now doing. There will be shortfalls. Reliance on the first use of nuclear weapons that would prompt Russian retaliation cannot address these shortfalls.

Granted, nuclear deterrence still matters as a backup to conventional deterrence, especially when Mr. Putin so noisily advertises his nuclear weapons. And what to do about Chinese muscle-flexing and the unpredictable North Korean leader? Would jettisoning a first-use posture hurt in the Pacific? All good questions. Answers can be found in the long list of troubling behavior by Russia, China and North Korea compiled while Washington has adhered to a first-use posture. Washington, unlike Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang, has never needed to parade fearsome missiles to clarify deterrence. The best nuclear deterrent for a state with strong conventional capabilities remains in the background, except for the occasional reminder of missile flight tests.

Back in the day, those steeped in the theology of nuclear deterrence argued that the cessation of nuclear testing would do grave harm. They were wrong. Instead, the cessation of nuclear testing by major powers over the last two decades has been a global blessing – especially to the state enjoying the greatest conventional military advantages. No reputable voice argues for renewed underground testing in the United States, or that the world would be in far better shape if the United States prompted others to resume underground testing.

Dropping Washington’s first-use posture would be unlike the cessation of nuclear testing, since three other states with serious domestic and regional security issues – Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan – will continue to adhere to first-use postures. But this isn’t an argument to keep their company if holding on to a first-use posture has not demonstrably helped the United States and U.S. allies. If suitable conventional means are available to strengthen extended deterrence, there is no compelling reason to adhere to a posture that American presidents will do their utmost to disregard. Having suitable means available requires downsizing U.S. strategic modernization programs.

A first-use posture had no bearing on the bloody wars and sordid messes that have befallen the United States since the Cold War ended. Threatening to use nuclear weapons first has not prevented bad outcomes or advanced better outcomes. These conclusions do not constitute an advertisement for belittling nuclear capabilities; they are a commentary on how little is gained by Washington’s continued adherence to a first-use nuclear posture.

Would U.S. allies in Europe and the Pacific feel more reassured if the United States uses nuclear weapons first in their defense? If not, what comfort can they really take in continued U.S. fealty to pledges of first use? If a first-use posture is not reassuring – which is the primary reason for its continued existence – then why not drop it while focusing on steps that do reassure? These steps include theater missile defense deployments and upgrades, joint military exercises, port visits, flyovers, forward-deployed U.S. troops, and rotational troop deployments.

Beyond a generalized argument over reassurance, the case for maintaining a first-use posture rests on localities around the periphery of Russia and China and on the Korean Peninsula where the correlation of conventional capabilities is likely to be insufficient for a prompt conventional defense. Another argument, as noted above, is that by adopting a No First Use posture, Washington would embolden Mr. Putin, Xi Jinping, or Kim Jong-un to engage in riskier behavior.

These arguments have merit, but they aren’t decisive. The United States cannot afford to have sufficient conventional capabilities everywhere they might be needed to repel attacks promptly. But neither can the United States afford to cross the nuclear threshold first in these contingencies. Answers must therefore be found in maintaining adequate conventional forces in reserve, mobility, agility, allies, and financial instruments that punish states that wage war or seek to coerce allies.

Since the Cold War ended – if not before – a first-use posture by the United States has not influenced limited wars and lesser military contingencies. (Exam question: Why didn’t Saddam Hussein’s use chemical weapons, but Bashar al-Assad did?) Nor has a first-use posture prevented serious crises or assured positive outcomes in crises. To believe otherwise – to believe that maintaining a first-use posture could help with limited wars and lesser military contingencies – is to disbelieve what has transpired over the past two decades, and to believe that an American President presiding over the most powerful military in the world would be the first to cross the nuclear threshold since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The leaders of other states that rely on a first-use posture to buttress glaring weaknesses might be able to convince themselves in the abstract that they would be willing to cross the nuclear threshold first – even in a crisis prompted by their own foolish or negligent actions. Any leader who does not recoil at this crucible of decision is, by definition, the most dangerous person on the planet. And someone who would not be deterred by Washington’s continued adherence to a first-use posture.

Why, then, does the Pentagon, which is so uncommonly advantaged, continue to adhere to a first-use posture? This is less about reasoning than about a core belief in the utility of nuclear weapons – not for fighting wars and lesser contingencies, but to deter them. This belief has been disabused repeatedly over the past two decades. Limited wars, lesser contingencies, and risky behavior will occur whether the United States abandons or continues to adhere to a first-use posture. Nor will the United States be able to convince other states to change a belief system dependent on first use. But Washington can at least stop deluding itself that first use is a viable option.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on July 5, 2016.

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