ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO – U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday that Washington has no plans to become a nuclear “no first use” nation, tamping down speculation that President Barack Obama may rip away that tenet of U.S. nuclear policy before leaving office.
Obama reportedly wants to scrap the U.S. position that it may need to fire a nuclear weapon before an opponent does.
By contrast, China has said it will not conduct a first strike.
“It has been our policy for a long time, and it’s part of our plans going forward,” Carter said at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In August, The Washington Post quoted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as expressing concern privately over no first use, citing a weakening of deterrence. The newspaper added that allies such as South Korea, France and Britain have quietly expressed similar worries.
Some analysts say scrapping first use would not change the balance of power in Asia, as there are few scenarios under which the U.S. could mount a successful first-strike attack on China and fewer in which it would need to, given its superior conventional capability.
Likewise, it would be difficult to use nuclear weapons to destroy North Korea’s counterstrike ability, a fact that deters Washington from trying.
However, the analysts say U.S. allies in the region may be unsettled by any change in the status quo.
“Tokyo and Seoul are likely to see this shift as a signal of strategic entrenchment by Washington and to be more suspicious of U.S. security commitment,” said Tong Zhao of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “This growing suspicion might be a factor in Tokyo and Seoul’s deliberations about their own nuclear weapons capabilities.”
He added that it would probably not push Japan or South Korea into going nuclear, given the economic, political and diplomatic costs involved.
Obama entered office promising to pursue a world without nuclear weapons. The Norwegian Nobel Committee noted the pledge in its citation for Obama’s peace prize in 2009.
He has fallen short in this quest. North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests this year, unsettling the region, and talk has grown of an arms race in the Persian Gulf.
At home, arms-control advocates criticize Obama for reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile by less than any other president since the Cold War. He has also announced a trillion-dollar upgrade of nuclear-capable aircraft, ballistic missiles and submarines.
There is debate in the U.S. over the constitutionality of the launch approval process. It requires only one person — the commander in chief — to make a decision that could spell the end of civilization.
A poll conducted after Monday’s presidential debate found that 51 percent of Americans think Republican nominee Donald Trump cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons. Just 42 percent said he would handle them responsibly.
In the debate, Trump appeared unfocused on the question of a first strike, ruling it out and then backpedaling. “I would certainly not do first strike,” he said. “At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.”
Tong called the comment “contradictory,” saying it underscored Trump’s lack of knowledge of strategic matters: “This is the danger, because we really cannot predict what his policy would be if elected.”
On Tuesday, two lawmakers submitted a bill to the House of Representatives that would bar a president from launching a first strike without prior approval from the legislature.
“Our Founding Fathers would be rolling over in their graves if they knew the president could launch a massive, potentially civilization-ending military strike without authorization from Congress,” bill co-sponsor Rep. Ted Lieu said.