Monday, August 15, 2016

Obama, Schelling, And No First Use Of Nuclear Weapons

Funny thing. Here I have been blogging here recently, , about how Thomas Schelling's idea of  focal points fit in to discussions about No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons policies.  Then today in both the New York Times ("End the First-Use Policy for  Nuclear Weapons" by James E. Cartwright and Bruce G. Blair) and the Washington Post ("Allies unite to block an Obama 'legacy'" by Josh Rogin) columns appeared about an ongoing debate within the Obama administration over precisely this issue, a debate I did not know was going on.  Apparently President Obama is seriously contemplating changing the official US policy that allows for a possible first use of nuclear weapons under several possible conditions to one of No First Use, with an announcement of this to coincide with his last visit to the UN General Assembly in late September. Interestingly, the two columns took opposite positions, the Cartwright-Blair one supporting the initiative while the Rogin ends up opposing it.

Cartwright and Blair, who both have past  experience nuclear weapons military policy, argue that this would be a move towards world peace, would save $100 billion over a decade, and that the US has sufficient conventional strength that nukes are not needed for such sensitive places as Korea. The policy would involve eliminating the tactical nukes in Europe, which should relax Russia somewhat, as well as the land-based ICBMs in the US, with both of these the least secure and the ones that are most likely to be launched suddenly by lower level officials.  The number of US warheads would go to 1000 from its current 1550, with bomber and submarine based launchpads still in place.  As it is, both China and India (and curiously, North Korea, although Kim Jong Un has recently talked of thermonuclearly wiping out New York City) have such NFU policies, while the remaining nuclear powers do not.

Rogin dismisses this effort as merely something Obama wants for his "legacy," suggesting it might make war more likely. Apparently several US allies oppose this initiative, including both UK and France who  do  not have NFU policies and think it would undermine their policies and their positions on the UN Security Council.  Offhand, I do not see the basis for this argument by them.  The other two nations not so keen on this are Japan and South Korea, with Abe of Japan supposedly the most vociferous about needing a nuclear defense against North Korea, even though a nuclear attack there would send nuclear fallout to Japan.Rogin, who has no past expertise in this area, accepts these arguments and effectively sees all this as just some dangerous grandstanding by Obama.  Also, according to him, the objections by these allies are getting traction and may carry the day in the end. I think that would be too bad.

I would like to bring out a bit more  from the arguments by Schelling regarding this, highlighting his Nobel Prize address, which appeared in the AER in 2006, "An Astonishing 60 Years: The Legacy of Hiroshima." (I have tried to link to this, but unsuccessfully, but googling the title will give you access).  I  have spoken of Schelling's modesty, and in the lecture he says nothing about his own role or the idea of focal points.  Rather he noted that while official policy among the leading nuclear powers never involved No First Use, from a very early time the norm emerged due to the moral  revulsion against nuclear weapons, as early even as 1953.  He recounts that some in the Eisenhower administration wanted to use nuclear weapons in various places, most especially Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, but Dulles and his allies were frustrated at the resistance they encountered.  It is not  in his talk, but in 1961 when Schelling oversaw war games for Europe at Camp David, those playing on each side simply refused to use nuclear weapons, even though official  policy of  both the US and USSR was that a European war would be a nuclear war.

Schelling argues (and obviously he was a force for  this)  that during the Kennedy-Johnson years, Defense Secretary MacNamara argued that the US should build up its conventional  forces in Europe precisely so  that there would be a non-nuclear option.  Schelling argues that this was understood implicitly and tacitly by the Soviets, and that they did likewise.  In short, both sides engaged in lots of expenditure of resources in order to develop  the non-nuclear alternative, and he notes that in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, where these great nuclear powers lost, neither used  nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear adversary, although the late Curtis E. LeMay urged it in the US.

Schelling emphasized how important it was that these understandings were tacit, implicit, but nonetheless very real.  Part of enforcing the norm, even as it was not part of official policy, was simply not to talk about it.  This is a main reason why the cheap talk by first some around Putin and now US presidential candidate Trump are so disturbing.  They really do undermine the norm, as I have noted in my earlier posts.  And it may be because of this undermining by these irresponsible parties that we so seriously now need an explicit No First Use pledge by the US, to make explicit what  has been implicit, and to shut these irresponsible nuclear warmongers up.

BTW, I doubt that Schelling has been personally involved in these current debates within the administration or that he will make any public statement about this matter (although I hope he will say something about it when he speaks at James Madison University on Sept. 14).  But I have no doubt that his work in his Nobel Prize address as well as his earlier Strategy of Conflict that sat on JFK's bedside table during the Cuban missile crisis have played an important part in the thinking of  those advocating this change of  US policy.

Barkley Rosser


John Randomness said...

Any first attack with a nuclear weapon is an unprovoked nuclear attack. The best result, as Scott Ritter puts it, is that the nuclear genie will be out of the bottle and some big American city will be taken out.

The worst possible outcome would be all-out nuclear war resulting in the destruction of human life. The movie "Fail Safe" considered the inadvertent launch of a nuke that took out Moscow. The US government nuked Manhattan to avoid an all-out nuclear war. Nuclear retaliation against a nuclear attack is the one and only justified reason for having nuclear weapons.

Since nuclear retaliation is a fair response to a nuclear attack, this punishment is very reasonable and should be established for an unprovoked nuclear attack: those who ordered the attack have to sit and watch (and hear) with eyes held open as their loved ones -- spouse, SOs, parents, children, siblings, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and other close friends and relatives -- are tortured to death.

It is hoped that such a punishment would never have to occur. I would make an exception of an attack on a wide-open, sparsely populated area.

Bruce Webb said...

Maybe nobody in officialdom discussed NFU directly but as a "Duck & Cover" kid (born 1957) who grew up on a steady diet of Sci-Fi that often assumed a past period of nuclear war it was openly assumed that M.A.D. as a doctrine assumed NFU. Even for proposals like LeMay's that assumed that 'tactical' weapons that only targeted 'clients' wouldn't necessarily trigger all out nuclear war.

Which was the power of the Daisy Ad in 1964 and for that matter the movie Dr. Strangelove. Nobody sane believed you could keep the genie inside the bottle once unleashed. And some believed the genie was already out of the bottle. Even before the actual bomb drop on Hiroshima:

" I am become Death [Shiva], the destroyer of worlds..."
Physicist Robert Oppenheimer
Supervising Scientist Manhattan Project

I am not the only person of my (Boomer) generation that assumed we were less than a 50/50 of making it out of this cosmic bind.

Myrtle Blackwood said...

I highly recommend the documentary entitled 'The Fog of War - 11 lessons from the life of Robert S McNamara'. See:

Robert McNamara: "Okay. Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he's speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He's killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn't destroyed nations. And the conventional wisdom is don't make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. They'll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you're going to destroy nations."

It turned out there was no learning period with nuclear power stations either.