Remember when, this spring, President Obama portrayed Donald Trump as a foreign policy know-nothing? More specifically, Mr. Obama warned that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was especially, and dangerously, ignorant regarding the essential role U.S. nuclear weapons have long played in preserving American security alliances, and in curbing the spread of these arms. It’s now coming to light that Mr. Obama’s ignorance of these subjects could be much deeper and scarier.
Bizarre as that sounds, it’s the only valid conclusion to draw if it’s true, as per reports (e.g., here and here), that the president is actively thinking of declaring that the United States will never be the first country to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. Here’s why.
Reserving the right to initiate nuclear weapons use has been central to American national security strategy since the end of World War II. However inhumane it may sound, the rationale was…eminently rational, if not indisputable. The main adversaries faced by the United States and its allies, the Soviet Union and secondarily China, possessed or could potentially field, enormous non-nuclear militaries all too capable of overrunning the conventional forces that America and its European and Asian allies were willing to muster in response.
America’s nuclear weapons were an understandable choice as equalizer when the United States enjoyed a nuclear monopoly. And even after the Soviets drew even and the Chinese developed serious nuclear capabilities, both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses justified a first-use policy with the assumption that simply the possibility of a war going nuclear – and threatening their homelands with the same annihilation America would suffer – would keep Moscow and Beijing at bay.
The history is complicated, and there’s no doubt that improving Soviet nuclear capabilities in particular and ambiguous U.S. responses periodically prompted allies’ doubts about the credibility of American commitments. But there’s also no doubt that during the Cold War, both conventional and nuclear conflicts great power conflicts were avoided, and it seems reasonable to credit the strategy of extended deterrence for at least some of this success.
As I’ve argued in recent posts, because Chinese and North Korean nuclear forces have been significantly upgraded in recent years, and because East Asia is much less strategically important to the United States than in Cold War days, extended deterrence creates far too much risk for far too little gain for Americans, and that the U.S. nuclear commitments to Japan and South Korea should be phased out. Although I haven’t written on the recent situation in Europe, I’d favor the same approach to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
So as a result, I don’t favor any use of nuclear weapons on these countries’ behalf, let alone first use. Trump has endorsed rethinking these security arrangements, too, including their nuclear components, although it’s not clear exactly what changes he’s seeking.
President Obama and so many other foreign policy establishment-arians have warned that these measures could very well lead American allies to seek extra protection by developing their own nuclear forces – which supposedly would make global affairs far more dangerous. I take this point – and it sounds like Trump does as well. But we both respond that precisely because the loss of America’s nuclear edge and growing dangers to the continental United States are plain for the allies to see, and because it’s inherently problematic for any country to risk its very survival on behalf of another, the allies are likely to go nuclear no matter what Washington promises or how powerful its own forces become.
And that brings us to precisely what’s so loopy about Mr. Obama’s reported position. On the one hand, he says he’s determined to preserve the alliances and their nuclear dimension – and specified that Trump’s critique showed that he “doesn’t know much about foreign policy or nuclear policy or the Korean Peninsula or the world generally.” On the other hand, there’s no better way to tear these alliances asunder, and all but guarantee that not only Japan and South Korea but Germany and other American formal and informal allies build or buy their own bombs, than to forswear use of America’s own nuclear weapons in their defense unless attackers with arguably superior non-nuclear forces (unnecessarily and irrationally) escalated to the nuclear level.
It’s possible that the president will decide to keep the first-use option – or that the reports of impending change are inaccurate. And of course, any decision he makes could be reversed by a successor. But it’s at least equally possible that even the news that American leaders are contemplating such epochal doctrinal shifts will set off the kinds of nuclear weapons acquisition spiral that Mr. Obama says he seeks to avoid. Unless anyone believes that countries living in exceedingly dangerous neighborhoods would settle for assuming that America is just as reliable as ever?
Trump doesn’t have a Ph.D. in international affairs. (The same goes for the president, by the way – and for me.) But he at least appears to recognize that it’s possible to preserve the alliance status quo, and that it’s possible to take an important step toward eliminating any chance of nuclear weapons use anywhere, but that it is completely impossible actively to seek both goals at the same time. More important, his remarks indicate he recognizes that the United States should anticipate strategic change, prepare for it, and even try to shape the process constructively.
The apparent Obama/establishment approach? Resist the seemingly inevitable – and (somehow) scramble once it arrives.