It has just been reported that President Obama has been engaged in extensive consultation with an independent foreign policy expert. He is apparently contemplating making an important policy statement about the use of nuclear weapons. Specifically, he proposes to address the issue of nuclear deterrence and the associated doctrine of ‘no-first-use’.
Quite right, you might think. President Obama has been much criticised for his reliance in these matters, on an inner circle of political appointees, who have not had the requisite expertise. This has been the burden of much of the criticism from his three previous Secretaries of Defence.
It was also, very pointedly, the opinion of Lt General Michael Flynn, who was until a year or so ago, President Obama’s Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency. In a remarkable appearance at the Republican Nominating Convention, General Flynn (who is a Democrat) observed that in the several years that he had worked for the Obama Administration, there were few signs that the President had taken any notice of anything he had written. Perhaps even more surprisingly, General Flynn noted that he had never actually had a face to face conversation with the President, on any issue.
Actually, part of the opening paragraph above was deliberately misleading. President Obama is contemplating a statement on ‘no-first-use (more on this below) but he has not (so far as I know) consulted any independent foreign policy experts on the matter. On the other hand, a person who has recently consulted such an expert and, apparently, ‘insistently’ asked questions of him, is presidential hopeful, Donald Trump (as reported by Joe Scarborough of NSNBC). In his case, it apparently only showed his stupidity and general unfitness for office. For the rest of us, a President (or presidential aspirant) who was keen to get expert advice might be thought a desirable thing. In the particular case, Mr Trump seems to have been a bit unfortunate in the ‘anonymous’ expert he chose, who seems to have preferred to use the occasion for political advantage.
The information that President Obama plans to make a statement about nuclear deterrence and, particularly, about the ‘no-first-use’ pledge comes from a blog on the web-site of the prestigious journal Foreign Policy (http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/04/nuclear-weapons-arent-just-worst-case-scenario-first-use-china-obama-trump/) This same source notes a story in a recent issue of DefenseNews, in which the Obama-appointed Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, comments that ‘she would be concerned if the US implemented a formal no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons’. It seems likely that she will be yet another expert who doesn’t get consulted.
Of course, there is a substantive issue here and that is, what (in the modern world) ought to be our attitude to nuclear deterrence and the, so-called, no-first-use pledge. This is what Elbridge Colby’s substantial blog is about and it is something I have commented on, in earlier postings on this site, as well as elsewhere. I need to summarise here.
As the Cold War stand-off developed from the end of World War Two in 1945, there was continuing speculation about how long the peace might last. With two conflicts involving the major states of the world in a little over twenty years, there was persistent speculation about a third world war. Now the fact that this has not happened in 70 years, despite bitter disputes and many provocations, raises a crucial question – why is this?
And the answer, of course, is that the likely major belligerents fear that any conflict between them would have the potential to become catastrophic. The easily envisaged losses on both sides would far outstrip the supposed benefits of resorting to violent means. This is the essence of nuclear deterrence and however we might feel about the issues at stake, or, indeed, the dangers entailed in developing and deploying such weapons (or even the morality of these activities) there is, at its heart, a stark reality that cannot be evaded.
Of course, deterrence does depend on how plausible it is to believe that a particular nuclear-capable state will, in the end, use its nuclear arsenal. If an adversary comes to doubt this then he may become more willing to risk conflict. This might arise if the particular state is perceived to be failing to maintain relevant hardware and readiness, or otherwise to be suggesting that it might not go through with the action that its capability implies.
One way of doing this, is by making the ‘no-first-use’ pledge. On the face of it making the pledge might seem ‘humanitarian’ but it might also bring on the very event it is intended to avoid – the use of nuclear weapons. Incidentally, the solution to all this is not to abolish nuclear weapons altogether (the so-called ‘zero option’). The prospect of getting a completely verifiable global agreement on this is vanishingly small (just think of the inspection regime that would be required – and look at the Iran deal).
Either way we attempt to resolve these difficult issues, we must surely wish to have in charge of policy formation persons who are willing to spend some time with experts, asking persistent questions, and having their own understandings forcefully challenged. Good for Donald Trump!