alliances, allies, Baltics, Biden, Biden administration, China, deterrence, globalism, no first use, North Korea, nuclear weapons, Obama, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, semiconductors, South Korea, Soviet Union, Taiwan, Trump, Ukraine
As usual, headline news is coming so fast and furiously from so many different direections that lots of major developments get neglected (including by me). One of the most important pretty stunningly shows once again that those American leaders who most loudly proclaim themselves to be champions of the globalist approach to foreign policy, and of the U.S. security alliances they view as one of its greatest achievements (both for the United States and the globe at large) have once more been flirting seriously with ideas certain to destroy those alliances.
Specifically, I’m referring to recent reports (e.g., here) that the President Biden is considering endorsing a “no first use” (NFU) policy for America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
The shift hasn’t yet been approved. A rethink hasn’t even been officially announced. And some of the anonymous sources who leaked this news to reporters (no doubt from inside the Biden administration, and no doubt as a trial balloon) claim that what’s being contemplated is changing to something similar to NFU but not identical to it.
But of course, trial balloons are floated precisely to evoke reactions to something that someone awfully high up in government (or whatever organization is doing the floating) thinks is a swell idea, and who’s confident that his or her boss thinks or would think so, too. Moreover, the difference between NFU and the variant being considered seems pretty academic at best.
Most important about this possible new Biden approach to national security is that it reveals this administration to be every bit as cynical and therefore unserious about the globalism and alliances it pretends to prioritize – and about its indignant and sanctimonious portrayals of the more skeptical views of critics like former President Trump as proof of their dangerous ignorance – as the Obama administration.
For as I explained five years ago when Obama entertained NFU right after slamming Trump literally as a foreign policy and specifically nuclear weapons know-nothing, even mulling such a new nuclear doctrine could undermine the very alliances that globalists like him exalted.
And the reason is simple: First use of nuclear weapons is the policy that for decades has enabled the United States to deter attacks on the allies credibly in the first place – and that has held these arrangements together. For long ago, Washington dismissed as impractical trying to match adversaries like the old Soviet Union, China, and North Korea in conventional forces. The first two could draw on populations that would always exceed America’s, and even when it came to relatively small antagonists like the latter, fielding such forces was considered too expensive to be sustained financially and politically.
Nuclear weapons, however, were relatively cheap, and American leaders judged that declaring their intent to respond to purely conventional attacks on allies by these countries by launching the nukes if non-nuclear forces proved inadequate would put the fear of God even in a nuclear superpower like the Soviet Union. And first use would even more effectively deter countries with tiny or non-existen nuclear forces of their own, like China and North Korea for decades.
Even when Beijing and Pyongyang built nuclear forces big and capable enough to call this U.S. bluff successfully at least in theory (because they could now wreak impressive nuclear destruction on the American homeland, too), American leaders put their trust in NFU. And if indeed protecting allies was the overriding priority of U.S. foreign policy, this judgement was at least defensible.
A NFU policy, though, or even trial balloons, could bring disastrous consequences. Either would risk emboldening the enemies of the United States and its allies by signaling that Washington would at the least hesitate to play its most formidable military card. Just as important, it’s hard to imagine a worst recent time than the present for indulging in such speculation. After all, not only does the United States no longer enjoy overwhelming nuclear edges over China and North Korea. But China and Russia have displayed ever greater interest in establishing or reestablishing effective control over small neighbors like Ukraine and the Baltic states and of course Taiwan.
In addition, a NFU policy or talk thereof could frighten allies into bailing on the United States and cutting the best deals they could with Moscow or Pyongyang or Beijing while they still had the chance. Alternatively, because sizable American forces remain right at or near the front lines at all three of these flashpoints, the absence of a first use policy could result in them getting caught up in unwinnable battles even if a U.S. President wanted to stay on the sidelines.
Finally, when we’re talking about Taiwan, of course, we’re talking about the place that now makes the world’s most advanced semiconductors – products that are central to both future American prosperity and national security. So as is not the case with Russia’s neighbors or even South Korea (an impressive semiconductor manufacturer in its own right), adopting NFU could result in the loss of a genuinely vital U.S. interest.
I’ve long favored fundamental changes in U.S. alliance and overall foreign policy and national security strategy. But that’s not the point here. If you like alliances, it’s really pretty simple: At a minimum, you either keep first use, or you greatly beef up U.S. conventional forces, or you convince the allies to fill whatever non-nuclear military force gaps you face, or you do all three or some combination of them. If you adopt NFU and fail to take offsetting steps on the conventional force front, be ready to kiss these arrangements goodbye.
From all accounts (see, e.g., here) the allies themselves recognize this. So does China. What’s scary is that even if the supposed adults-in-the-room and master strategists in the Biden administration eventually realize the stakes involved (as their Obama predecessors eventually did), they may have greatly undermined the nation’s safety – along with boosting the risks of conflict the world over.