Funny thing. Here I have been blogging here recently, econospeak.blogspot.com/2016/08/cheap-talk-and-nuclear-war.html , 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.