Obama is thinking of leaving a nuclear weapons mess for the next president to clean up.
President Barack Obama is considering making a “no first use” declaration regarding U.S. nuclear weapons. Under this framework, it would be the policy of the United States not to resort to using nuclear weapons in a potential crisis unless another country did first. This is widely seen as a legacy move in the final months of Obama’s presidency, a way to cement his anti-nuclear reputation in history.
Obama has consistently sought to diminish the influence of nuclear weapons in American and global security. In a speech in Prague in 2009, he called for a “commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” He has also commended the Global Zero campaign, which seeks to eliminate nuclear weapons. The idea is that nuclear weapons are obsolete as a means of shaping global security, and the world would be safer without them.
However, U.S. allies and coalition partners have quietly but strongly pushed back against the proposed move. They argue that the policy would undercut the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent at a time when the nuclear threat is increasing. As such, they argue, the initiative is driven more by ideology than a practical assessment of the state of global nuclear affairs.
The Kremlin clearly believes that nuclear weapons remain a potent tool in Russia’s national arsenal. Moscow has vastly increased its nuclear submarine patrols in recent years. It has also flown more strategic bomber missions on the U.S. and European periphery. The most troubling news is that Moscow has launched a crash program of upgrading nuclear command bunkers for its military and political elites. Russia seems content with the notion of zeroing out nuclear weapons so long as the United States is the one doing it.
Russia in particular has been on a nuclear modernization binge, which may be a surprise to the Obama administration. The 2010 New START Treaty was intended to be a framework for bilateral nuclear arms reductions, consistent with Obama’s “no nukes” vision. In practice it became a means to legitimize Russia’s nuclear buildup while the United States arsenal shrank. The number of deployed Russian warheads has grown 13 percent since the treaty came into force in 2011, and Moscow is now 185 warheads over the treaty limit. Over the same time period, the number of U.S. deployed warheads shrank by 18 percent and is now 69 below the agreed-upon limit.
China has also embarked on a nuclear weapons modernization program and recently began nuclear submarine patrols in the increasingly tense South Pacific. Nuclear states North Korea, India and Pakistan show no sign of wanting to sign on to a nuclear-free future.
In the Middle East, the nuclear deal with Iran has at best delayed Tehran from achieving nuclear capability, and at worst has allowed the Islamic Republic to continue its secret programs with a new infusion of previously frozen cash. Sunni Arab countries, alarmed by Iran’s increasing power and influence, are quietly planning to develop their own nuclear deterrent forces. The United States has tried to counter this trend by pledging to extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella over the region. But it is not credible to expand deterrence while shrinking the nuclear arsenal, especially under a president who is skeptical of nuclear weapons in general.
On a global scale, the fewer nuclear weapons there are, the more potent those that remain become. The relative power of other nuclear arsenals increases as the United States force declines. No other country in the world seems as eager as the U.S. to denuclearize, and therein lies the problem. Unilateral nuclear disarmament is not leading by example; it is forfeiting the capability to maintain a vital leadership role in global deterrence. It makes the world less secure, not safer.
Adopting a “no first use” posture would essentially cede the nuclear high ground to those countries that are seeking strategic dominance. And for Obama to make this vanity pledge on his way out the door would present his successor with the messy task of having to roll back that flawed policy as soon as possible.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of “The Real Custer: From Boy General to Tragic Hero.”