Correspondence: Responding to Chemical and Biological Threats

The official U.S. government policy is to maintain "calculated ambiguity" about whether the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapons in response to an adversary's use of chemical weapons (CW) or biological weapons (BW) against U.S. allies, U.S. armed forces overseas, or the U.S. homeland. Since the 1991 Gulf War, numerous civilian and military leaders have stated that the United States might use nuclear weapons in response to CW and BW threats or attacks, and some have even stated that the United States will use nuclear weapons in such circumstances. The central argument in my spring 2000 International Security article was that this policy has created a dangerous "commitment trap" problem.

The benefit of making such nuclear threats, whether stated ambiguously or clearly, is that they can increase an adversary's estimate of the probability that the U.S. president would order nuclear retaliation, which should therefore decrease the likelihood of chemical or biological weapons attacks. But there is a serious cost attached to this obvious benefit: If deterrence fails despite nuclear threats, the statements will also increase the likelihood that the United States will actually use nuclear weapons, because the president's personal and the U.S. government's institutional reputations for following through on threats would be perceived to be at stake.

I argued that current U.S. nuclear doctrine has therefore created a subtle dilemma that has not been recognized, much less debated, in both policy and academic circles: Is the improvement in the U.S. ability to deter CW and BW threats worth the increased likelihood of a U.S. nuclear response if deterrence fails?