American Nuclear Policy, Calculated Ambiguity and Maintaining Credibility in Military Conflict

“No First Use!”: Wishful Thinking and Conceding Advantage

Should the United States pledge against initiating a nuclear first-strike in the face of prospective military conflicts with Iran and North Korea? Analysis by Ploughshares Fund estimated that there are around 14,185 nuclear weapons distributed amongst the world powers, with the United States and Russia taking the lion’s share of the distribution. 4,150 of those weapons have been operationally deployed as of 2017. In the midst of such uncertainty concerning the potential usage of these weapons in military conflicts, given the seemingly inescapable realities of the security dilemma in international politics, the United States gains nothing strategic by committing to a no-first-use (NFU) policy that publicly reveals U.S. intent in military conflict against its adversaries. In fact, making such an explicit commitment is dangerous, and could severely cripple U.S. strategic leverage should a war with Iran and North Korea ever ensue. For that matter, maintaining a calculated ambiguity approach to American nuclear policy remains the more viable option in keeping U.S. adversaries in check. 

As of now, most states maintaining nuclear weapons capabilities have also maintained defense policies that would allow a “first-use” nuclear strike against adversaries (e.g. including North Korea), with NFU pledges being rare and generally considered to be not credible. Drawing from the logic of the security dilemma, this makes sense. There is no way to discern whether states will hold true to their word to not use nuclear weapons in a first-strike scenario, especially if using them could, in effect, yield geopolitical influence and global reckoning. The U.S. being the international actor to take the first-step will not mitigate this reality (states will likewise question U.S. commitment to hampering its use of nuclear weapons). However, American policymakers, interest groups and U.S. allies have continued to grapple over the viability of an official U.S. NUF policy. Proponents (such as the Arms Control Association) of an official NFU pledge argue that such a policy would reduce adversary tensions in the event of a crisis (e.g. such as a military confrontation against the North Korean and Iranian regimes) and that it would serve as an influence to other actors (including hostile states) to make similar pledges in achieving the overarching goal of global nuclear disarmament. They argue that frequent U.S. resistance to such a policy stance have harmed these aspirations.  

Also, adherents to this position maintain that refusal to this policy won’t deter adversaries from incurring costs on the U.S. (e.g. such as South Korea and Israel) through limited conventional means of attack on allies within their respective near-abroads. The Obama administration even sought an NFU policy in order to mitigate tensions in 2016 against major backlashes by Republican members of Congress that saw this as an “Achilles’ heel” to maintaining stability amongst allies underneath the U.S. nuclear umbrella (e.g. in Northeast Asia and in Europe) and a hampering of U.S. leveraging capabilities.

To the NFU proponents’ credit, a nuclear-conflict in the 21st century would be globally catastrophic. The B61-12, one of the U.S.’ newest, most usable, accurate and lethal nuclear weapon, has a maximum yield of 50 kilo-tons (equivalent to 50,000 tons of TNT). If detonated, the blast-range of the weapon would kill between three and four million people.

An ironic study by Stanford Scholar Scott Hagan found that as of 2017, regarding the Iranian nuclear controversy, that “…contrary to the nuclear taboo thesis, a clear majority of Americans would approve of using nuclear weapons first against the civilian population of a nonnuclear-armed adversary, even killing 2 million Iranian civilians, if they believed that such use would (hypothetically) save the lives of 20,000 U.S. soldiers.” This is congruent with research by the Roper Center that found that while most Americans generally do not want their nuclear weapons to be launched first (against a nuclear or nonnuclear adversary), “…this opinion is far from universal, and many expect it (The U.S. government) to have to make that decision sometime in the not-too-distant future.” In North Korea, where relations have been rocky at best, a nuclear first-strike against Pyongyang would not just destroy millions within the blast vicinity, but the death toll would imminently destroy millions within South Korea and even Japan, as well as draw Russia and China into the nuclear conflict to protect their own strategic interests in the area.

However noble NFU proponents are in their desire for comprehensive global disarmament as an end goal, it is not plausible that such an undercutting of U.S. leveraging capability would serve as a viable option to achieving this goal. In fact, detractors to a U.S. NFU policy (Such as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) within the U.S. foreign policy circle (which even recently included members in the Obama administration’s own cabinet) have frequently rebutted this position, augmenting concerns from U.S. allies (e.g. Western Europe, Israel, Japan, etc.) that such a policy could embolden adversaries to attack through conventional means that wouldn’t violate the U.S. nuclear red line.  For example, “Threatened by China and its ally North Korea, Tokyo does not want to see a declaration of no-first-use. As ‘a senior government official close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’ told Kyodo News about such a possibility, ‘it is unacceptable.’ South Korea, Jonathan Pollack and Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution report, are also opposed to America adopting no-first-use.”

Aside from this, there remains the reality that a NFU pledge would make the U.S. appear weak on its allied commitments as well as leading to greater levels of nuclear-proliferation amongst U.S. allies who would be forced to take defensive measures into their own hands. In essence, “The moment when large states are redrawing their borders by force is not the time to try something different with America’s weapons of last resort.” Recent U.S. nuclear policy to this point has seemed to follow this string of logic.

As of 2014, U.S. nuclear policy, referred to as Operations Plan or OPLAN, is geared towards achieving two objectives: Strategic Defense and Global Strike. According to Schlosser, “Both (objectives) seek to prevent an attack with weapons of mass destruction against the United States – one, with an implied threat; the other with an American first strike…the OPLAN enables the president to use nuclear weapons against Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, and Iran. ‘Adaptive planning’ allows targets in other countries to be chosen at the last minute.” This policy follows the principles of calculated ambiguity. It doesn’t negate U.S. leverage, it enhances it by putting it on an unpredictable capability footing that could frighten adversaries into capitulating to U.S. strategic interests such as the nuclear disarmament of hostile states, because the risk of an American first-strike remains in effect. The Trump administration has seemingly taken the strategy of calculated ambiguity drastic steps further.

The recent departure from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran orchestrated by the Trump administration, the recent annulment of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia as well as ongoing diplomatic discussions over Pyongyang’s nuclear program in North Korea give rise to vital questions regarding the Trump administration’s intended approach in handling any prospective military conflict that could put the United States in a precarious nuclear situation with any of its most adamant adversaries.

Considering North Korea and Iran, both of their nuclear programs remain shrouded in mystery, with North Korea presumably already carrying half a dozen nuclear weapons and with both states in particular having expressed acute interest in deploying long-range missiles armed with nuclear warheads. What has increased the stakes of the conflicts between the two totalitarian regimes is that North Korea has been cited by U.S. intelligence officials as maintaining the capability to sell its long-range ICBM missile technology to Iran, and has purportedly also assisted Syria in the past in developing its chemical weapons programs.

Controversy and disagreements between conflicting parties may have worsened, given the ambiguous policy positions of the Trump administration towards U.S. conflict with Iran and North Korea and its nuclear policies in general, but unpredictability is the underpinning of an entire calculatedly ambiguous nuclear policy. Trump seems to be exploiting this approach, and we need only monitor the currently massive estimated costs the Trump administration plans to incur in order to build U.S. weapons capabilities. In fact, recent Congressional Budget Office reports have shown that the administration’s plan to maintain and replace the entire U.S. arsenal over the next 30 years would cost an estimated $1.24 trillion dollars, departing from the global disarmament position of dovish foreign policy leaders.

Trump’s “madman” strategy has made his foreign policy very unpredictable, but given the doctrine of “calculated ambiguity,” this is perhaps the goal, and it bears the potential to be extremely effective if used correctly. Even more unpredictable is whether the administration would actually use nuclear weapons in a “first-strike” capacity, leading some analysts to wonder whether or not Trump’s ambiguous firebrand threats would be perceived as bluffs or as legitimate threats to both North Korea and Iran, where threatening the United States with nuclear war has become embedded into both states’ foreign policy DNA. Whether the conflict will in fact worsen internationally is directly dependent on how Trump’s threats from a policy of ambiguity is then viewed by adversaries, and whether his threats would force Pyongyang and Tehran to capitulate or to retaliate. Given his extremely unorthodox presidency so far, it is plausible that U.S. adversaries will be forced to take the president’s threats with more seriousness than from his predecessors. Whatever the case, the Trump administration’s rhetoric eliminates any speculation about whether the president’s goals are to “lessen nuclear” tensions by pursuing an NFU policy as an act of diplomatic goodwill. 

For example, former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster advocated for a “bloody-nose” limited first-strike strategy against North Korea in order to reinforce U.S. leverage in the conflict. The Pentagon’s recent February unveiling of a new nuclear policy planning installment of new low-yield nukes on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (which emphasized Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric) has drawn major political controversy between doves and hawks debating over the effectiveness of such a volatile stance.  This move essentially snubs any suggestion of adopting an NFU policy.

What is clear is that allies underneath the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” and located within volatile regions near hostile states will insist (and have insisted) against a U.S. NFU policy given their own precarious circumstances against hostile regimes like North Korea and Iran. If and when the United States adopts an NFU policy, it is plausible to assert that allied states will resort to substantial nuclear proliferation of their own in order to “fill in the gap” left by U.S. refrain. 

Allies rely on the U.S.’ extended deterrence, which includes a “first-strike” option, and taking that option away would be considered counterproductive if the goal of an NFU policy is to further global disarmament. “Considering negative security developments, which include increased ballistic missile and nuclear threats from North Korea, increased assertiveness of the Iranian regime flush with the Obama administration’s cash, as well China and Russia’s massive nuclear weapons modernization programs,” fortification of nuclear arsenals would be the logical approach for U.S. allies to an official NFU stance. Again we see the security dilemma evident within the reliance of allies upon U.S. nuclear policy, and what it means for them in their own respective security concerns with hostile states.

With the appointment of nuclear “first-strike” supporter John Bolton to the position of National Security Adviser in place of General H.R. McMaster, it is plausible to assert that the Trump administration may want to maintain a policy of “calculated ambiguity” concerning the utilization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal instead of committing itself to an NFU policy. John Bolton, in particular, has even entertained the option of striking North Korea first as a preventative measure.  Yet for all the banter, given the security dilemma, maintaining ambiguity in such a crucial area of American policymaking would perhaps be the most effective direction modern U.S. nuclear policy can go in light of the current international environment. “Showing your cards” before the “game is over” would ensure a loss of any strategic advantage a state may have previously held.

Policy Proposal Amidst The Security Dilemma: Press on Mr. President!

Concessions are implied within an explicit NFU policy. Essentially speaking, within an unpredictable international geopolitical structure where states are in a constant struggle for leverage (especially in military capabilities), the logic of the security-dilemma “…is three-fold: (a) under anarchic conditions, parties must provide for their own security; (b) parties are wary, then, of their standing relative to others and must act to offset their rising capabilities; and (c) any gains achieved in defense for a ‘threatened’ party will present offensive challenges to others requiring that they, too, adopt offsetting measures.” In other words, intentions are in themselves shrouded by perception, and worthless if there is no reason for any state (let alone Iran and North Korea) to believe U.S. resolve even if it happens to put an NFU policy in writing.

Only the executive branch of the U.S. government (the buck stopping with the president) is equipped to address the issue of modernizing U.S. nuclear policy. Congress may control allocations for defense funds, but it is the president that chooses how to distribute defense funding for purposes of national security.  Therefore, it is more plausible that the Trump administration continues to draw back from the danger of making any explicit commitments whatsoever to any nuclear posture (one could refer to a policy of “ambiguity” as a non-posture), lest it entraps itself in the problem of “non-retractable commitment.” If the goal is to increase U.S. nuclear deterrence credibility and leverage in military conflict, it won’t serve the administration any dividends to simply commit to either using nuclear weapons first in conventional conflicts or pledging against a “first-use.” 

Instead, it is better for the Trump administration to remain somewhat neutral between the two positions while at the same time continuing to reinforce its weapons capabilities, which seems to be the policy position that the president’s inner circle has favored recently. Narang (2014) argues for this position in the form of an “asymmetric escalation” posture against both nuclear and non-nuclear states (e.g. Iran and North Korea), which essentially asserts two premises: (1) There should in fact be a presence of both an “escalator” that the concerned state (the U.S.) uses to threaten nuclear force against significant conventional military breaches by adversaries (ex. Iran attempts to invade Israel; North Korea crosses 38th parallel to forcefully annex South Korea) while subsequently engaging in significant expenditures towards arms proliferation to increase the threat’s credibility; (2) nuclear assets and authority should be appropriated to the military, which “creates a madman deterrent: the fear that rogue military officers could take matters into their own hands and release nuclear weapons in the midst of a low-level conventional conflict.” Essentially speaking, “Because the asymmetric escalator manipulates the risk of escalation to the nuclear level very early (the position the Trump administration is currently in regarding its tenuous negotiations with Tehran and Pyongyang), these two mechanisms should reinforce each other, generating a substantial deterrent to even limited conventional conflict.”

Using statistical analysis tracing dyadic conflicts between the years 1816-2001, Narang (2014) was able to conclude that nuclear postures that rest on “assured retaliation” principles (such as an NFU policy) along with others that are more explicit in commitment tend to suffer severe deterrence failures, which includes full-scale wars. In essence, these positions proved major strategic failures even when 20th-century nuclear weapons weren’t even a factor for consideration. These difficulties are statistically shown to have carried over to more recent years. By contrast, a posture of “asymmetric escalation,” which is ambiguous in and of itself, produced consistent statistical results that showed it to be “deterrence optimal” against adversaries at “every level of armed intensity,” which included both nuclear and non-nuclear states in the modern historical context. Specifically, “states that adopt an asymmetric escalation posture see a marked reduction in the risk of armed conflict at the most important levels of intensity – three to four times lower probability of conflict where one or more parties use force.”

If these statistics hold weight, then perhaps it would be plausible for Trump to continue his fire-branded banter while at the same time increasing U.S. military authority over the usage of our nuclear arsenals and increasing weapons procurement. This move puts less of an emphasis on the “civilian power restraint” factor on military decision-making and more on the military’s prerogatives to “win wars.” In other words, the U.S. can avoid a commitment trap while also communicating resolve to use force. U.S. negotiations have been repeatedly hampered by leadership’s desires to “make deals,” which have led to weaker, adversarial states (e.g. Iran and North Korea) being able to obtain “irrevocable concessions” by simply waiting the United States out. Basically, “Any concession (coming from explicit commitment)—even those that are meant as ‘peace feelers’ (e.g. an NFU policy) or that are reputedly ‘no longer on the table,’ – are essentially non-retractable and build on prior concessions…When any offer is non-retractable and when the adversary is not losing ground militarily (or politically)—the United States could only hope to seal a deal with additional concessions.”

For example, when the United States communicated an explicit demarcation line to North Korea in 1953 with the hope of ending the Korean war, it served as the basis of an armistice agreement, “but not without protracted negotiations over contentious issues (for instance, prisoner repatriation) and costly North Korean offensives aimed at bettering the final terms.” Now the Trump is administration is facing the same foe (adding Iran to the mix) within a different context but the same kind of security dilemma that President Eisenhower faced during his contentions with DPRK leader Kim Il-Sung. It’s imperative that the Trump administration doesn’t make the same mistake as its predecessor. The goal is to get concessions from our most hostile adversaries, not to offer up explicit concessions ourselves with no real guarantees of reciprocation. Explicit commitments, such as Robert McNamara’s “assured destruction,” and “assured retaliation” (following an NFU policy) both do harm to U.S. interests because of their lack of credibility. This is not an entirely new assessment. According to a 1974 analysis by Van Cleave and Barnett, deterrence as a strategy itself has been isolated away from “flexibility” and more towards “selectivity”, placing more exclusive emphasis on “retaliatory punishment; capability was prioritized over credibility. 

Today, goodwill has been argued to take priority over credibility as well, making the same mistake in reverse. Against NFU advocates’ protests that suggest arms proliferation as detrimental to deterrence, “Contrary to what many seem to believe, increasing the credibility of (nuclear) use does not promote a breakdown of deterrence, and if both capability and credibility of the use of strategic weapons are sufficient, deterrence will be strengthened.” Allowing U.S. nuclear policy some “breathing room” through ambiguity and lack of explicit commitments provides an important “hedge against the inability to predict deterrence thresholds for a range of situations, promotes the possibility of escalation control, and increases opportunities for war termination…”

Taking this flexibility away only isolates U.S. nuclear policy to an exclusive set of situations where an NFU policy and a conjoining policy of “retaliatory strike” may or may not work. This

is a dangerous position to take, which is why the Trump administration must maintain all of its advantages and avoid NFU supporters or extreme hawks from “tying his hands.” In essence, the international security dilemma may worsen with an explicit NFU policy commitment, instead of being alleviated.

It is important to note that both North Korea and Iran have behaved in ways that aren’t irrational with regards to their nuclear policies.  Both are concerned with costs and benefits. In fact, their behavior suggests that both regimes are attempting to keep their options open. North Korea’s “government has escalated conflict when it has suited its purposes and then adjusted its position when it obtained necessary and/or unlikely US political and economic concessions…” Concerning the Tehran regime, “Iran’s attempts to retain its nuclear prerogatives and to avoid sanctions—conflicting at times and cooperating when necessary to prevent a firm and united opposition—establish that Iran, in pursuing its policies, is sensitive to costs and benefits.” Questions arise as to why the U.S. shouldn’t incorporate the same kind of strategy that its own adversaries are using.

The Trump administration has already indicated that a policy of “calculated ambiguity” is indeed the policy position that he is going to go with, indicating that all the recommendations for policy in this paper will be considered viable options that The White House would be more than willing to consider and implement. Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review seems to juxtapose this policy push as a continuation of the longstanding policy doctrine of strategic ambiguity. Trump announced a major nuclear weapons stockpile increase following the termination of the INF Treaty, “‘Until people come to their senses, we will build it up,’ Trump said in reference to U.S. nuclear weapons capacity. ‘We have more money than anybody else by far.’” The question of whether more control over nuclear-use will be delegated to military discretion still remains unanswered. But if these recent, surprising developments are any indication, such a major move cannot be considered “out of character.” A non-policy on nuclear weapons usage (avoiding any and all explicit commitments) would be best in leveraging against Iran and North Korea as they continue to present threats to U.S. allies within their respective regions. It leaves the question of whether the U.S. will indeed use a “first-strike” against conventional military breaches unanswered. With the departure from the long-standing INF Treaty, Iran and North Korea could be forced to take the Trump administration more seriously on its threats.

Should Trump dramatically shift gears towards an explicit NFU policy and reject the stated policy proposal for nuclear ambiguity, the consequences could be extremely detrimental and catastrophic for U.S. nuclear credibility. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists summarizes the dangers of an NFU policy, “A US pledge of no-first-use now would encourage current and future opponents to believe that they need not fear the US nuclear deterrent in response to their potential massive use of military force against us or our allies—including the use of advanced conventional weapons, and chemical and biological weapons.”

NFU advocates claim that U.S. conventional military dominance is enough for a deterrence strategy (therefore nuclear ambiguity is unnecessary), but this would cost uncountable death and casualties should we ever have to redeploy hundreds of thousands of troops in the event that a war with Iran or North Korea break out. It is for this reason that past presidents (both Republican and Democrat alike) have rejected an NFU policy for well over seventy years. There’s nothing concrete within an NFU policy that suggests that conflicts and wars will be mitigated and other states will follow the U.S. lead, especially given the realities of the security dilemma. In essence, in relying too much on our conventional capabilities, the Trump administration will have confused “war-fighting” with “deterrence.” The goal should be to prevent war by increasing its costs, not assuring our conventional forces will win a protracted military engagement with hostile states. If Trump limits his military options, whether by committing to a first-strike or committing to an NFU policy, he will have effectively tied his hands should Iran and North Korea ever turn more aggressive. Worse, an NFU will more than likely lead to heightened nuclear-proliferation as allies within our nuclear umbrella are compelled to increase their stockpiles to deal with their own security-dilemmas, such as South Korea and Tokyo concerning North Korea and Israel concerning Iran. In other words, the very outcome NFU advocates seek (global disarmament) is the very outcome that is negated by their proposal, and Trump will be most unwise to turn from his current trajectory. Maintaining credibility must be priority.

Nau (2013) notes that force within a policy posture of “conservative internationalism” (a policy position Nau coined conjoining the use of force in diplomacy where nuclear ambiguity would likely reside) is crucial, even concerning nuclear weapons usage. Specifically, “Force is useful not just to deter despots but also to weaken them…Conservative internationalists see force as necessary before and during diplomacy, closing off alternatives to negotiations, thereby incentivizing opponents to negotiate seriously.” What is interesting is that Nau (2017) has labeled Trump a “Conservative Internationalist” precisely because of his consistent willingness to use force in negotiations with hostile regimes. It would be catastrophic to his strategy and overall U.S. credibility if he decides to “bind his hands” by entrapping himself in an explicit NFU policy that the U.S. may in certain catastrophes find it vital (and yet then impossible) to depart from.                                                                    



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