When Not to Use Nuclear Weapons

April 06, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Whoa, what’s all this stuff on cable news about President Obama’s forthcoming revision to U.S. nuclear-weapons strategy? You’re not surprised. You knew all about the substance of the Nuclear Posture Review on Friday. Well, except for one aspect of it.

Obama gathered some reporters at the White House yesterday to unveil a big change in nuclear strategy, contained in the document that the administration will release at noon. As The New York Times puts it, the Nuclear Posture Review will explicitly forswear the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear attacks:

It eliminates much of the ambiguity that has deliberately existed in American nuclear policy since the opening days of the cold war. For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack.

That’s something arms-controllers have wanted to see for a long time, especially since it recognizes a truth that is key to maintaining a credible non-nuclear deterrent: it’s inconceivable that the U.S. will actually use nuclear weapons unless it’s been struck by them.

What’s more, it appears the document’s abandonment of nuclear retaliation for non-nuclear assault is a clarification, teasing out the implication of one of its central aspects: declaring that the principle nuclear threat to the U.S. is from proliferation — that is, not just from a nuclear-armed enemy, but from the existence of the weapons themselves. Maybe this quote in a Friday piece from the Arms Control Association’s Daryl Kimball will clarify things:

“What will be a transformative shift is to say that the purpose of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear use against us and our allies,” Kimball said. “That would implicitly eliminate from the roles and missions [any] potential use of nuclear weapons to fight a conflict that begins as conventional or to counter chemical or biological forces.”

Apparently the document will make that explicit.