Nuclear proliferation has been a vexing but important issue for U.S. President Barack Obama during his two terms in office.
Since his election, he has fought an uphill battle in his quest for a world without atomic weapons. Now in the twilight of his presidency and amid a growing debate over the merits of a potential shift to a “no first use” nuclear policy, things aren’t likely to get any easier.
As Obama weighs a change in strategic doctrine in the coming days and weeks, to declare that the U.S. would never be the first to use nuclear weapons, Asian security experts, academics and top officials across the globe remain divided over the issue: Is maintaining the first use option an outdated Cold War relic or a necessary evil, crucial for protecting American allies on the continent?
Tokyo has expressed concerns over any move by the U.S. to adopt such a policy, reportedly calling it “unacceptable” from a Japanese security standpoint. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has even weighed in, according to a column in the Monday edition of The Washington Post, with the Japanese leader “personally” conveying his message of concern to U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris recently.
“Abe’s response signals concerns that Obama’s no first use doctrine would undermine the deterrence of the U.S. nuclear umbrella in Northeast Asia,” said Sebastian Maslow, an assistant professor at Tohoku University’s graduate school of law in Sendai. “The common Cold War-centered strategic view undergirding this nuclear umbrella is that the potential first use as well as nuclear retaliation has generated a strategic equilibrium in the region keeping countries such as North Korea and China in check.”
In the eyes of Obama’s critics in Japan, said Maslow, limiting U.S. deterrence capabilities to retaliation could alter this strategic equilibrium.
In South Korea, which has endured years of North Korean atomic saber-rattling, Seoul has also voiced its concerns over the issue, with some prominent lawmakers even asserting that developing atomic weapons should be an option if the U.S. nuclear umbrella develops holes.
“We can’t borrow umbrellas from next door every time it rains. We should wear a raincoat of our own,” Rep. Won Yoo-chul, the floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party said in February.
A no first use decision by Washington would come amid apparent progress by North Korea on its nuclear weapons program as well as growing Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China seas — both seen by Tokyo as threats to the regional order. It also comes at a time when Russia, which abandoned its no first use policy with the fall of the Soviet Union, seeks a return to its former glory.
“Degrading the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in this way would be a highly imprudent step at a time when Russia and China are pursuing expansionist, aggressive policies in Europe and Asia respectively, and issuing explicit threats to U.S. allies in the process,” Keith Payne, president of the U.S.-based National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP), writes in a soon-to-be published paper obtained by The Japan Times. “U.S. adoption of NFU (no first use) now has only ‘downsides’ for U.S. and allied security.”
Key among these downsides, security experts say, would be the diminished credibility of U.S. deterrence — especially on the Korean Peninsula.
As scientists in Pyongyang work to improve their nuclear weapons technology, including missiles capable of hitting the U.S., critics of no first use have repeatedly cited North Korea’s already considerable threat to Japan and South Korea.
“The U.S. nuclear umbrella is a principal reason why North Korea does not use its conventional forces to inflict a major strike on South Korea,” said Richard C. Bush III, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies. “That in turn reduces any South Korean temptation to get its own nuclear deterrent. But no first use would mean that the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons to counter a North Korean conventional attack, and so removes them as a reason — perhaps the principal reason — for the North to show restraint.”
Earlier this month, in an apparent first, North Korea launched a ballistic missile that fell into waters inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan, an action that Abe called a “grave threat” to the country.
While North Korea is not thought to have mastered the technology needed to rain down ballistic missiles on U.S. bases in Japan, experts believe Pyongyang is close to this threshold.
For these reasons, any erosion of the U.S. nuclear umbrella has stoked worry in Tokyo while also triggering proliferation concerns.
“U.S. allies who depend, at least in part, on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for their security would very likely be compelled to take steps to mitigate the degradation of the U.S. nuclear deterrent,” said the NIPP’s Payne. “They understandably would be likely to pursue one or more avenues to help restore their security. One such avenue would be the possible acquisition of, or creation of their own independent nuclear weapons and adoption of pre-emptive strike strategies.”
But, according to Payne, the introduction of new nuclear powers in Asia or Europe would likely be extremely destabilizing given Chinese and Russian hostility and their likely severe responses.
“Advocates of a U.S. NFU policy claim that a NFU policy would be stabilizing. For the reasons discussed above, it appears that the effects would be just the opposite, and dangerously so,” Payne added.
Still, building a nuclear stockpile — even with a belligerent neighbor like North Korea — is unlikely to gain traction in Japan, the only nation to have been attacked with atomic weapons.
Anti-nuclear sentiment runs thick among a large majority of the population, and aside from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the memory of the Fukushima radiation crisis remains fresh.
However, supporters of the no first use policy, including Chung-in Moon, a political science professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, say that it could mitigate a nuclear arms race, rather than spur one.
“Universal adoption of a no first use policy can facilitate the formation of a Northeast Asia nuclear weapons free zone, which definitely deters Japan and South Korea from going nuclear,” Moon said.
Moon, who also serves as the co-convener of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, an advocacy group consisting of former leaders and experts from 14 countries across Asia and the Pacific, including Japan and South Korea, has encouraged the Obama administration to adopt the no first use policy.
“A no first use policy would have both symbolic value and significant practical implications,” Moon said. “Its potential benefits greatly exceed possible downsides.”
According to Moon, it would encourage a shift away from high-risk doctrines and weapons deployments while also helping to avoid the need for forward deployment, launch-on-warning postures, and pre-delegation of authority to battlefield commanders, “significantly dampening the prospects of accidental and unauthorized use.”
An endorsement of the policy, he added, would also speak to the world’s growing humanitarian concerns about atomic weapons.
For the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, the policy would also “adjust the United States and its allies to a more realistic” defense posture, said Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute think tank in Berkeley, California.
“The destabilizing effects of the United States retaining a first use option as declaratory policy are far greater in increasing the risk of actual use of nuclear weapons by the United States or its adversaries,” said Hayes, who also called Abe’s worries “completely incorrect and alarmist.”
The U.S., with its overwhelming conventional military advantages, does not need to threaten to use nuclear weapons to deter or defeat a major conventional attack against the homeland or its allies, no first use supporters, including Hayes, say.
“Short version: the U.S., its allies, its adversaries, and the whole world is safer if the U.S. adopts a NFU policy,” said Hayes.