Scott Sagan's Introductory Statement at the Sagan-Payne debate on US Nuclear Declaratory Policy on May 25, 2010

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a live debate May 25 between Scott Sagan and Keith Payne, CEO and president of the National Institute for Public Policy. CSIS is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.

Scott Sagan's Introductory Statement

I have been asked to address the question: "What should be U.S. declaratory strategic deterrence policy?"

I continue to believe, as I wrote in my 2009 Survival article, that,

"The United States should, after appropriate consultation with allies, move toward a No-First Use declaratory policy by stating that the role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear weapons use by other nuclear weapons states against the United States, our allies, and our armed forces and to be able to respond, with an appropriate range of nuclear retaliation options if necessary in the event that deterrence fails."

I believe that slow but steady movement toward a No-First Use (NFU) doctrine is in the U.S. interest because I think U.S. declaratory policy should have three characteristics.

U.S. declaratory policy should:

a) address the full range of nuclear threats to U.S. national security objectives (not just basic deterrence);

b) be accurate and consistent, reflecting actual military doctrine rather than being mere rhetoric; and

c) U.S. declaratory policy should reflect what U.S. leaders really might want do in the event of a deterrence failure.

In my brief opening remarks, I will explain these three points and outline the logic and evidence that leads me to the conclusion that the benefits of an NFU declaratory policy outweigh its costs.

Point #1: Deterrence is one, but only one critical U.S. national security objective and prudent decisions about declaratory policy regarding the use of nuclear weapons should take into account its likely effects on deterrence of adversaries, bit also the reassurance of allies, the further proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional states, the risks of nuclear terrorism, the impact of our declaratory policy on nuclear doctrines of other states; and the prospects for long-term nuclear disarmament. In this sense, the CSIS question (like previous Nuclear Posture Reviews (NPR) before this latest one) is too narrow in scope and could therefore lead to an excessively narrow, indeed a wrong-headed, answer. Historically, many actions and statements made in the name of deterrence - think of Richard Nixon's Madman Nuclear Alert over Vietnam or George W. Bush's suggestion that "All Options are on the Table" included nuclear preventive strikes on Iran -- might add just a smidgen of deterrence, but can be highly counterproductive with respect to other U.S. nuclear security goals. This is true of the NPR in general: just as war is too important to be left to the generals, nuclear declaratory policy is too important to be left solely to the Pentagon.

Opponents of this broader conception of nuclear posture claim that there is no evidence that U.S. nuclear posture influences others or perceptions that we are honoring our NPT Article VI commitments help with non-proliferation goals. That view is wrong. Let me give just two examples:

1. Evidence to support the point about U.S. disarmament steps helping encourage others to act is seen with Indonesia's decision to ratify CTBT earlier this month:

When Indonesia announced its decision it said it had taken note of the "serious effort" on the part of the current United States Administration in promote disarmament. "We do feel that at this time, what is needed is positive encouragement rather than pressure of a different type that we've been trying to impart in the past," he said, voicing hope that the U.S. will follow suit from his country's actions. "We are also cognizant of some positive aspects of the United States' Nuclear Posture Review."

2. For evidence on the doctrinal influence or mimicry point let me cite India. In January 2003, the BJP government in New Delhi, influenced by the U.S. NPR, adopted a revised, more offensive nuclear doctrine including the explicit threat of Indian nuclear first-use in response to biological or chemical weapons use. "India must consider withdrawing from this [NFU] commitment as the other nuclear weapons-states have not accepted this policy." Although it is too early to know the final result, the Indian government today appears to be reversing course: A group of very senior former officials has stated that, "It is time to review the objectionable parts" of India's nuclear posture and the Foreign Minister has called for universal declarations of NFU.

Point #2: U.S. Strategic Nuclear Declaratory Policy should be consistent with actual U.S. Nuclear Doctrine. That is, U.S. government officials should not misrepresent what its "real" nuclear policy is when it makes public statements about intent and plans. This may seem like an obvious point to some... but history suggests that this principle is not always followed--from Robert McNamara's mid-1960s declaratory statements about Assured Destruction (which often downplayed the heavy Counter-Force emphasis of U.S. doctrine at the time) to the Bush Administration's February 2002 statement in which in the same speech it "reaffirmed" the 1995 Negative Security Assurances not to use nuclear weapons against NNWS parties to the NPT unless they attack the U.S. or our allies with a NWS and, in the same speech, also stated that, "If a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response. This followed the leaking of the classified portion of the 2001 NPR which reportedly placed Iran, Libya, and Syria on target lists, creating a flurry of negative international press reports.

In an era in which leaks should be considered highly likely, if not inevitable and, at a time in which we want more transparency around the world, the U.S. Government should err on the side of transparency. With multiple audiences present, calculated ambiguity may sometimes be necessary and even helpful; clear contradictions and calculated hypocrisy are not.

Here, I must give the current Administration some credit, for it judged that there was a small set of specific threats that could not currently be met by U.S. and allied conventional forces. It said so clearly in the Nuclear Posture Review and also clearly committed itself to deal with the challenge:

"The United States will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons." (p. ix)

Critics say that this will weaken extended deterrence as key allies will feel abandoned. Evidence so far is to the contrary:

  Japan: Foreign Minister Okada said, in October 2009, "We cannot deny the fact that we are moving in the direction of No-First Use of nuclear weapons. We would like to discuss the issue with Washington." The Japanese 2010 Rev Con statement said, "Japan appreciates and welcomes the Nuclear Posture Review by the United States." "We call on all states possessing nuclear weapons to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies. In this connection, we call on the Nuclear Weapon States to take, as soon as possible, such measures as providing stronger negative security assurances that they will not use nuclear weapons against Non-Nuclear-Weapon States that comply with the NPT." Japanese 2010 NPT Review Conference statement

  This is also the case in NATO: The German, Dutch, Belgian and Norwegian governments have all called for removal of the tactical nuclear weapons on their soil. NATO meetings will address this soon. We should not just assume that the credibility of extended deterrence and reassurance to allies is threatened by NFU declarations or removal of tactical weapons. Instead, we should listen to what our allies are saying and work with them.

Point #3: U.S. declaratory policy should reflect what the U.S. might really want to do if deterrence fails. Doctrine and declaratory policy should be made with an acute awareness that deterrence might fail and not succumb to the common wishful thinking biases that assumes perfect prospects of success. This leads me to appreciate the wise advice that Brent Scowcroft gave to President George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War to avoid "spoken or unspoken threats to use them (Nuclear Weapons) on the grounds that it is bad practice to threaten something that you have no intention of carrying out."

When an official threatens actions that we have no intention of carrying out it can add a thin sliver of deterrence strength but at the grave cost, if the action occurs anyway, of either cheapening the currency of deterrence or risking the creation of a commitment trap that leads the state to execute an option that it otherwise would deem ill-advised. Here, I think of General Chilton's recent remarks about using nuclear threats to deter cyber attacks, as an example.

Here, I should note that in order to enhance non-proliferation and move slowly in the direction of a nuclear-free world the current NPR adds new NSAs and threatens conventional attacks only against NNWS in compliance with the NPT: "The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations" (p.viii) and promises that its conventional responses would be "devastating" and that, "any individuals responsible for the attack, whether national leaders or military commanders , would be held fully accountable."

Dr. Payne, in his 2009 article, was critical of the whole goal of nuclear disarmament, despite the U.S. Article VI commitment to work in good faith toward that objective. He has written that, "The continuing threat posed by chemical and biological weapons is a fatal flaw in the logic of the nuclear-disarmament narrative, one that is all but ignored by its proponents.

"In fact, even if all enemies and potential enemies of the United States miraculously gave up their nuclear weapons, the United States would still need to maintain a nuclear deterrent arsenal. Why? Because some enemies reportedly retain other types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), such as chemical and biological weapons, that could inflict enormous civilian casualties...If we also take nuclear deterrence off the table, we may, as Gen. Paul Fouilland, commander of the French Strategic Air Forces, has observed, 'Give a green light' to chemical and biological threats," Dr. Payne states.

I fail to see how a promise of "devastating" conventional responses and a promise that, "Any individuals responsible for the attack, would be held fully accountable" is giving any kind of green light to an adversary contemplating a chem/bio attack.

Furthermore, the only historical evidence that Dr. Payne cites to demonstrate his belief that, "Nuclear weapons threats have unique deterrent qualities" is the alleged success in deterring Iraqi use of Chem/Bio during the 1991 Gulf War:

The preponderance of evidence suggests that this is not right: Saddam did not use his WMD in 1991 because we threatened to march on Baghdad and overthrow his regime if he did that and "promised" to do that if he refrained from using his WMD.

First, look at the Bush, 25 January, 1991, letter to Saddam:

"Should war come it will be a far greater tragedy for you and your country. Let me state too that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical or biological weapons or the destruction of Kuwait's oil fields and installations. Further, you will be held directly responsible for terrorist actions against any member of the coalition. The American people would demand the strongest possible response. You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort." Two of the three things that Bush warned about happened...hardly good evidence that vague threats or calculated ambiguity worked as a deterrent.

Second, look at James Baker's memoirs in which he claimed that he "purposely left the impression that the use of chemical or biological agents by Iraq could invite tactical nuclear retaliation," but also warned Aziz that if Iraq used weapons of mass destruction, "Our objective won't just be the liberation of Kuwait, but the elimination of the current Iraqi regime." Advocates of maintaining calculated ambiguity too often cite the first statement but fail to cite the second Baker statement.

Third, look at what Saddam said under interrogation: "How would Iraq have been described if it had used nuclear weapons? A: "We would have been called stupid." In the May 2004 interrogation: "The WMD was for the defense of Iraq's sovereignty. Iraq demonstrated this with the use of WMD during the Iraq and Iran War, as Iran had threatened the sovereignty of Iraq. Yet, Iraq did not use WMD during the 1991 Gulf War as its sovereignty was not threatened."

In conclusion: I think you will discover today that reasonable people can certainly disagree about how to value and prioritize these different nuclear-related objectives and reasonable people can (and do) disagree about how best to pursue them. But reasonable people should not ignore the full range of U.S. objectives and narrowly conflate deterrence with security, should continue to search for evidence that supports or weakens their assumptions, and should engage in rigorous dialogues like this to help propel the debate forward.