The Biden administration is reported to face serious resistance from allies as it debates nuclear policy and weighs the possibility of a “no first use” (NFU) declaration. A version of this story pops up every time a Democratic administration assesses nuclear weapons policy, although some think change is more possible now than ever before.

The volume of dissent, rising tension in the region and the power of the nuclear weapons establishment all weigh against a significant change in policy, with insiders believing that the prevailing mood about China in the U.S. will make real modification impossible. Still, there is an increasingly weighty countervailing consideration: a new approach to deterrence, one that more deeply integrates allies into U.S. planning and operations and closes the space that might be created by a no first use declaration.

Since 1993, every U.S. administration has issued a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that lays out its thinking about nuclear weapons. There have been five, and the Biden administration began its own in July. Due out next year, it isn’t clear if it will be published — sometimes they’re classified — or will be integrated into the National Defense Strategy.

Reportedly prominent in those discussions is the prospect of an NFU declaration or a “sole purpose” pledge. NFU is self-explanatory: The declarer promises that it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. China has long had an NFU and the call for a reciprocal U.S. declaration is a staple of U.S.-China strategic discussions.

A sole purpose pledge is like NFU, but instead states that the sole purpose of the nuclear arsenal is for deterring — and, if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack against the U.S. and its allies. Opponents argue that the U.S. needs to be able to escalate to nuclear use to deter adversaries and sole purpose, like NFU, denies Washington that option.

There are compelling arguments for an NFU policy. They include the assertion that no U.S. president would ever be first to use a nuclear weapon; the fact that regional tensions are increasing and some predictability and certainty about use of the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be valuable and provide much needed stability; that there are better forms of deterrence, and that such a declaration would eliminate the need for some modernization of the nuclear weapons arsenal and reduce a budget projected to reach $634 billion over the next decade.

There are compelling arguments against NFU. The first is that regional tensions are increasing and adversaries are modernizing and significantly improving their conventional and nuclear capabilities. The U.S. needs to retain some ambiguity about the use of its nuclear arsenal to keep adversaries off balance and deter a conventional attack; NFU, they charge, could embolden those adversaries. Second, U.S. allies are troubled by an NFU policy since they could be attacked with nuclear weapons and a U.S. response could violate that pledge; similarly, they worry about attacks with other weapons of mass destruction that the threat of a nuclear response might deter. (Plainly, a lot depends on the wording of the declaration.) Third, and as a result, there is fear that NFU could encourage allies to develop their own nuclear weapons because of a lack of faith in the U.S.

Joe Biden is said to have supported a sole purpose pledge when he was vice president and backed it during the 2020 campaign, at one point promising that his administration would “work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.” The 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released earlier this year, stated that his administration would seek to “re-establish credibility as a leader in arms control” and “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in (U.S.) national security strategy.” His deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, the person tasked with writing the NPR, was Leonor Tomero, a former staffer on Capitol Hill and a well-known advocate for arms control.

History counsels against expecting shifts of this sort. Former President Barack Obama reportedly considered and then abandoned both options. Biden’s first budget request continued current nuclear modernization plans, and there is little sign of new thinking in congressional testimony of his Defense Department officials. Tomero was dismissed a few weeks ago when her position was reorganized out of existence. An unidentified Defense official told a media outlet that she was one of the “arms controllers who used to seem naive but now seem irrational given what China and Russia are doing.” Recent articles about Chinese military and nuclear modernization programs — hype about their hypersonics — and a Financial Times piece over the weekend that highlighted allied concerns about NFU are seen as attempts to shape the debate and hammer home the need for consistency and continuity in U.S. policy.

Still, there is worry. Allies point to Biden’s tendency to trust his own judgment on military matters — Afghanistan is exhibit 1 — and to downplay their concerns when weighing U.S. interests. I did an informal survey of Asian allies, and their responses aligned with NFU criticisms. One Japanese defense expert was scathing in his assessment: “While the positive effects of (NFU or sole purpose) are doubtful, the negative effects in terms of signaling to allies and adversaries are certain.”

The deteriorating security environment is preeminent among allies’ calculations. Typical is the thinking of Rod Lyon, a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who doesn’t believe “that an NFU fits the times. Great-power relationships are increasingly competitive, putting new stresses on deterrence and assurance. We need greater leverage from nuclear weapons, not lower leverage.” That Japanese defense expert put it more bluntly: The NPR should provide “an honest description of the reality that the security environment regarding nuclear weapons is getting worse and worse. Faced with that reality, NFU or sole purpose is logically incoherent.”

A constant concern is the “stability-instability paradox,” in which an adversary’s confidence that it could threaten the U.S. in a strategic nuclear exchange would embolden it in a regional conflict. Ken Jimbo, a Keio University professor who is a pillar of Japan’s strategic community, has long highlighted this problem. He warns that “NFU would embolden China’s prospect of victory in extreme circumstances,” encouraging it to take risks it might otherwise avoid.

Skepticism about NFU doesn’t mean that the status quo is satisfactory. My correspondents emphasized the need for modernization and strengthening of U.S. deterrent capabilities, employing all instruments of national power. In the military setting, the U.S. and its allies need to be ready for the entire spectrum of contingencies, from gray-zone challenges to conflict between militaries. Recent alliance declarations — the statement from September’s U.S.-Australia Ministerial Consultations is a model; Japanese officials should be studying it — hone in on ways to strengthen conventional deterrence.

Effective modernization of U.S. nuclear policy demands the development of new ways to deter by working creatively with allies to reapportion roles and missions, burdens and responsibilities within the alliance framework. One Korean defense analyst suggested that changes in declaratory policy such as NFU might be acceptable with “a more robust deterrence capability.”

Allies are taking “integrated deterrence” seriously and they have ideas on how to proceed. Lyon is looking for new forms of “nuclear sharing,” South Korean strategist S. Paul Choi wants the NPR to “provide an impetus in the way the U.S. integrates allies into the process of operationalizing these strategic forces, and in the support the U.S. provides in bolstering ally conventional platforms.” He’d like a declaration that “willing U.S. allies will be recognized and welcomed as critical enablers of the U.S. nuclear posture to realize a truly integrated alliance deterrence posture.” And that means that partners like South Korea should be brought more fully into planning and operationalization of integrated deterrence.

It isn’t clear how far Japan can go with that integration. The closest thing to a detailed discussion is that of strike options but even that is very preliminary. Identifying the specific ways that Japan can contribute to integrated deterrence, especially in the military context, is, I would argue, far more important than the debate over defense spending. These issues will top the agenda as the alliance managers discuss modernization in the months ahead, illuminating not only the confidence that the allies have in each other, but the real meaning of any declaratory policy about nuclear weapons.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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