First Use for What? A Failed Policy
Director, Secure World Program
W. Alton Jones Foundation
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NATO will celebrate its 50th anniversary this spring--a long run
for a political-military alliance, as for a marriage. In preparing to
renew their vows, some partners, such as Germany and Canada, would like
to adjust the alliance to post-Cold War changes. Unfortunately, the U.S.
revealed last month that it is determined to keep the world in the dark
about NATO nuclear affairs.
NATO was a shotgun marriage, formed under fear that Moscow could use
nuclear threats to expand communism throughout Europe. The threat of
Soviet military aggression deepened NATO's reliance on nuclear weapons as
the first line of deterrence, leading to the policy of using nuclear
weapons first in conflict. Contrary to the general public's
understanding, this meant that the U.S. would initiate nuclear war in
response to conventional attack, not just to retaliate against Soviet
However, the strategic basis for first use of nuclear weapons receded
when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian army crumbled.
Seven years later, the Russian army has been defeated in Chechnya and is
utterly incapable of invading the West. Russia is so weakened that the
U.S. is considering providing food aid to its army.
Recognizing the need and opportunity to update NATO's nuclear mission,
Canada and Germany want the alliance to lower the salience of nuclear
weapons. They believe that nuclear first use is unnecessary,
counterproductive and unbefitting of a prosperous, democratic and strong
Europe. Instead, they argue, NATO should promote nonproliferation by
showing the world that nuclear weapons will not be an instrument of
international power and status in the 21st century. At the very least,
they argue, NATO must openly debate its nuclear doctrine in the light of
the Cold War's end.
The Clinton administration wants no such debate. In the past few
weeks, American officials have pressured German and Canadian counterparts
to abandon calls to reconsider NATO nuclear doctrine. The U.S. gives no
compelling military-strategic reasons for its position. Defense Secretary
William Cohen offered only that first use "is an integral part of our
strategic concept and we think it should remain exactly as it is."
During the Cold War, NATO and U.S. officials told their publics that
reliance on massive nuclear threats was a regrettable, tragic necessity
to counter the Soviet menace. Now that the Russian menace has further
waned, the sense of regret has been replaced by a limp assertion that
first use of nuclear weapons is a good thing that should be continued
forever without question. In this vein, the Pentagon also insists that
the U.S. must keep at least 2,500 strategic nuclear weapons deployed
under a START III treaty, when the Russians want the limit to be 1,000.
This bizarre attitude debases the higher aspirations that motivated the
West's Cold War struggle for security from nuclear destruction. The
Germans remember but the U.S. is trying to make them forget.
To be sure, threats remain that responsible officials cannot ignore.
Yet the threats in Europe are no longer westward Russian invasion and
nuclear bolts from the blue. For the foreseeable future, the dangers are
ethnic conflict in Central and Eastern Europe, retrograde nationalism,
loose nukes in Russia and terrorism. Nuclear weapons are irrelevant to
deterring or defeating these threats. If Cohen or other American
officials have a scenario in which NATO would use nuclear weapons first,
they should specify and debate it. The world's leading collection of
democracies deserves nothing less.
American officials understandably posit the potential need to use
nuclear weapons in a major war on the Korean peninsula or perhaps in the
Persian Gulf, especially if adversaries wield weapons of mass
destruction. Such scenarios can and should be debated, too. Yet wars in
these theaters do not threaten the existence of European states, and it
is in Europe that NATO nuclear doctrine pertains.
Or does it? Cohen hinted last month that the U.S. seeks to expand
NATO's writ to the entire globe and to expand the mission of nuclear
weapons to counter potential biological and chemical weapon threats
anywhere on Earth. This may be the real story, and it explains the
Pentagon's desire for silence. If there were a debate, the rest of the
world and many Americans would question new missions for NATO. Extending
the role of nuclear weapons would violate American treaty commitments not
to make nuclear threats against nonnuclear-weapon states. If this is what
the U.S. has in mind, it should allow democratic deliberation on these
The U.S leads the global nonproliferation regime but seems to forget
that the regime is predicated on the goal of devaluing and trying to
eliminate nuclear weapons. Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty will meet in 2000 to renew their "vows," and it is naive to think
that they will not be affected by NATO's example. If the world's most
powerful and secure states refuse to devalue nuclear weapons as a first
line of defense, how can weaker states in more troubled regions be
expected not to seek these weapons? By stifling open debate on these and
other questions, the United States sullies the human nobility, idealism
and activism on which NATO was founded.
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George Perkovich, Director of the Secure World Program at the W. Alton Jones Foundation in Charlottesville, Va., Is Writing a History of India's Nuclear Weapons Program, to Be Published in 1999 by the University of California Press
1998 Los Angeles Times All Rights Reserved
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