In support of nuclear no first use

A U.S. Air Force B-52 (C) flies over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji - RTX21PNS

According to news reports, President Obama is considering making a pledge that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons in combat. This idea, apparently floated as a trial balloon, has received considerable criticism from Mr. Obama’s senior advisors, who say that U.S. allies around the world would be worried by such a move.

While that may be true, at least as a temporary reaction from some of them, I believe Obama is right. Having wrestled with this question before a good deal, I believe the toughest call concerns if and when an advanced biological pathogen could be used by an enemy against the United States or an ally in a future war. Wouldn’t it be appropriate, potentially, to respond then with what would amount to a nuclear first strike, especially since the United States does not and will not have biological weapons of its own?

In fact, I believe there are good ways to handle this concern—and thus good reasons to make the nuclear no first use pledge.

Conventional threats

First, a word is in order on conventional military scenarios. Aren’t there cases in which the United States might need to use nuclear weapons against an enemy’s conventional attack—just as we feared during the Cold War, if the Soviet Union attacked a European ally, for example. In today’s world, though, and in foreseeable cases, any such attack—by, say, Russia or China on, say, Poland or Japan—would be either defeatable by American and allied conventional response or not worth the costs of a nuclear war, or both.

In a number of hypothetical conflicts near Chinese or Russian borders, should the United States and allies lose a battle, they would be better advised to strengthen their defenses in order to prevent further losses while also patiently preparing a military countermove (and applying strong economic sanctions in the meantime). Of course, more can be said on this but I believe that is the correct bottom line.

Biological weapons threats

Turning now to the biological weapons threat, this is admittedly a serious matter. Nuclear abolitionists often argue that not all weapons of mass destruction are created equal. Chemical and biological weapons are a lesser threat. But it is not quite that simple, especially for biological weapons.

As I wrote in my 2010 book “A Skeptic’s Case for Nuclear Disarmament“:

While the notion of biological warfare conjures up horrible images of incurable and fatal diseases that create slow, painful death, their actual use to date has been so restricted that the perceived potency of the threat has diminished in the eyes of many. In addition, given their typically slow incubation times, and indiscriminate effects, they often have been seen, rightly, as instruments of terror than of purposeful state violence. This is not to deny that existing agents could be extremely lethal, only that they would have to be disseminated extremely effectively and in a manner not yet witnessed. That extremely contagious agents have not yet been combined with extremely lethal ones further constrains the magnitude of the existing threat.

But things could change in the future. Biological weapons could become much more potent or be dispersed far more efficiently than has been the case. Biological knowledge certainly is advancing fast. To take one metric, the number of genetic sequences on file, a measure of knowledge of genetic codes (short or long) for various organisms, grew from well under 5 million in the early 1990s to 80 million by 2006, and progress has continued just as fast since then. The number of countries involved in biological research is growing rapidly too. For Americans, who long led the way in biology, it is sobering and important to remember that today, at least half of all important biological research is being done abroad. For a movement focused on the future, many nuclear abolitionists have not squarely faced the challenge of biological weapons as they could evolve and improve in coming decades.

One can naturally hope that better monitoring and verification concepts will be developed for biological and chemical weapons—just as they must clearly be improved in the nuclear realm if abolition is ever to be feasible.  But these will be very hard to devise and probably rather imperfect in their ability to provide timely warning. Various forms of direct and indirect monitoring can be tried—the latter including looking for mismatches between the numbers of trained scientists in a given country and the professional positions available to them there, or a mismatch between the numbers of relevant scientists and associated publications. Big disparities could suggest hidden weapons programs. One can also build up disease surveillance systems and create rapid-response biological weapons investigation teams to look into any suspected development of illicit pathogens or any outbreak of associated disease.  But a good deal of luck would likely still be needed to discover most biological weapons programs. 

Microbiological research often takes place in small facilities that are hard if not impossible to identify from remote sensing.  Various inspection regimes, export control regimes, and enhanced biological safety regimes have been proposed to reduce the risks of pathogens being developed by irresponsible actors. But the rigor of on-site inspections has to be balanced with companies’ legitimate interests in protecting industrial secrets if and when they develop a new commercial product, adding to the challenge. And no inspection regime can confidently thwart the actions of a sophisticated state actor bent on developing advanced pathogens secretly; the technologies are becoming too ubiquitous, and the possibility of hiding illicit activities is too great.  Countries bent on cheating are likely to succeed in hiding their associated research and production facilities.

For such reasons, it is eminently possible that a future aggressor state could secretly develop an advanced “bug”—perhaps an influenza-born derivative of smallpox resilient against currently available treatments, for example. This bug could combine the contagious qualities of the flu with the lethality of very severe diseases. It is such a prospect that led the late John Steinbruner of Brookings and the University of Maryland to note that “one can imagine killing more people with an advanced pathogen than with the current nuclear weapons arsenals.”

The state developing this bug might simultaneously develop a vaccine or new antibiotic against to protect its own people against the new disease. That could be difficult, of course, in light of the technical challenges; for example, new classes of antibiotics are proving very difficult to develop. Even if successfully developed, such a treatment might not be completely effective, and might work less well over time—for example, the effectiveness of a vaccine designed to defeat a virus could atrophy if the original virus mutated.  If the United States faced the prospect of millions of its own citizens becoming sick as it considered a response to a brutal aggression, and its only recourse was conventional retaliation, its range of options could be very limited. Indeed, the very troops called on to carry out the retaliation might become vulnerable to the disease, jeopardizing their physical capacity to execute the conventional operation. Perhaps they could be protected on the battlefield, once suited up, but they could be vulnerable before deployment (along with the rest of the American population). A potential adversary, sensing these possibilities, might find the concept of such an advanced pathogen very appealing.

Would there really be a clear and definitive moral argument against the use of a nuclear weapon in retaliation for a biological weapons attack that killed hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of innocent Americans? Locating the origin of an attack or of a biological pathogen that had not yet been used but had been somehow sampled could be challenging. But detection might well prove possible under numerous scenarios like the one sketched above.  If huge numbers of American civilians including the young, old, infirm, and sickly had been targeted, the case for restraint would be hard to make. At least, it would be no stronger than the case for absorbing a nuclear weapons strike and choosing not to retaliate.

In his classic book on just and unjust war, Michael Walzer asserts that “nuclear war is and will remain morally unacceptable, and there is no case for its rehabilitation. He also argues that “nuclear weapons explode the theory of just war. They are the first of mankind’s technological innovations that are simply not encompassable within the familiar moral world.” This would seem to argue (since biological weapons of certain types predated nuclear technologies) that in fact nuclear threats could never be justifiable against a biological attack. However, the logic of Walzer’s overall case against nuclear weapons is based explicitly on their indiscriminate and extreme effects—characteristics that advanced biological pathogens, which did not truly exist when he wrote these words, would share. To be sure, the entire concept of nuclear deterrence is one of questionable morality—and Walzer is right to demand that an alternative be sought as quickly as possible. That said, it is hard to argue that nuclear deterrence of an adversary’s possible use of nuclear weapons is any less moral or justifiable than nuclear deterrence of an adversary’s possible dissemination of an advanced pathogen that could kill millions.

Indeed, a nuclear response to such a biological attack might possibly be done in a more humane way than the biological attack—if that was desired in a given situation. Nuclear responses might target military bases and command headquarters, for example, avoiding populated areas except where those leaders most directly responsible for the initial aggression were being targeted.

Yet there is a way around this conundrum, even if the United States makes a nuclear no first use pledge and changes its standard military planning procedures accordingly. Legally, the argument begins with the concept of belligerent reprisal. Though controversial and subject to debate, the idea here is that if one is grievously attacked by a country violating international law, the aggrieved country has a right under the U.N. Charter (and its self-protection clauses) to retaliate proportionately in a way that could itself violate international law—and thus, presumably, the country’s own doctrines and promises as well.

[J]ittery allies, once they saw that it had no substantial bearing on U.S. military preparedness, would almost surely adjust.

Second, and more importantly, no adversary could wisely assume otherwise. If a biological attack of the type posited above were successfully conducted at some distant date—no one is close to being able to conduct it now, even if they had the motivation—it is implausible that, with millions of innocent civilians dead, the United States would feel honor-bound to eschew severe retaliatory measures based on some historical pledge. Because a nuclear strike could in fact be carried out with greater precision than a biological attack, the response could in fact be somewhat less severe and escalatory than the initial offense, lending further credibility to the likelihood that it would be conducted.

A no first use pledge would still be meaningful, because it would be understood to focus on plausible scenarios. It would usefully reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in near-term U.S. defense policy. And jittery allies, once they saw that it had no substantial bearing on U.S. military preparedness, would almost surely adjust. All at home and abroad could rest secure in the knowledge that, for the truly heinous and almost unimaginable scenarios like those that could result from advanced, contagious, highly lethal biological attacks, America’s well-maintained nuclear arsenal was not just there for show—and would provide significant residual deterrence whatever the formal doctrine said.

To be sure, such a no first use pledge would have only modest benefits as well. But for the core purposes of American national security policy, I believe we can in fact have our cake and eat it too—honestly make a good faith no first use pledge without losing all deterrent benefits that come from the U.S. nuclear stockpile.