Skip to main content
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he talks about the Trayvon Martin shooting in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2013. Obama on Friday jumped into the debate over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, declaring that Martin "could have been me, 35 years ago" and urging Americans to understand the pain blacks felt over the case. REUTERS/Larry Downing
Order from Chaos

Before moving to “no first use,” think about Northeast Asia


Few issues are closer to President Obama’s vision of the global future than his convictions about reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. Less than three months after entering office, in a major speech in Prague, he put forward an ambitious nuclear agenda, declaring that the United States (as the only state ever to employ nuclear weapons in warfare) had a “moral responsibility…to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Seven years later, despite the administration’s having advanced other goals in non-proliferation policy, the larger vision of a nuclear-free world remains very much unfulfilled. But President Obama apparently hasn’t given up. In late May, he became the first American president to visit Hiroshima, where the United States first employed a nuclear weapon in warfare. In his speech, the president declared that “nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles…must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.” Moreover, as President Obama approaches his final six months in office, senior officials are purportedly deliberating additional policy changes that they believe could be undertaken without congressional approval. As Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in a June 6 speech at the Arms Control Association, the president remains intent on advancing his “Prague agenda” before leaving office.

According to recent press reports, the policy options under consideration include U.S. enunciation of a nuclear “no first use” doctrine. Such a step would represent a profound shift in U.S. policy. Non-nuclear states living in the shadow of nuclear-armed adversaries have long relied on U.S. security guarantees, specifically the declared commitment to employ nuclear weapons should our allies be subject to aggression with conventional forces. They have based their own national security strategies on that pledge, including their willingness to forego indigenous development of nuclear weapons.

Northeast Asia presents a clear contradiction between President Obama’s non-nuclear aspirations and existing circumstances.

These issues bear directly on the credibility of U.S. guarantees to allies in Europe and Asia, with particular relevance in Northeast Asia. Since the end of the Cold War, the content of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrence pledge has already narrowed. Washington has long deemed any use of nuclear weapons a matter of absolute last resort. Since the early 1990s, Washington has also enunciated an unambiguous distinction between employment of conventional and nuclear weapons, including the unilateral withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons deployed on the Korean peninsula. 

The Obama administration itself has also moved closer to limiting nuclear weapons use exclusively to deter another state’s first use of such a weapon against the United States, its allies, and partners—in fact, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review declared that this was a “fundamental role” of the American nuclear arsenal. At that time, it also pledged to “work to establish conditions” under which it was safe to adopt universally a policy where the “sole purpose” of U.S. nuclear weapons was to deter a nuclear attack by an adversary. The implication of such a “sole purpose” policy would be that North Korea need not fear American nuclear retaliation if it mounted only a conventional attack against South Korea. 

Whether it is “no first use” or “sole purpose use,” Northeast Asia presents a clear contradiction between President Obama’s non-nuclear aspirations and existing circumstances. The Republic of Korea and Japan (the only state ever subject to nuclear attack) confront the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Pyongyang continues to enhance its weapons inventory and the means to deliver them. It also regularly threatens Seoul and Tokyo with missile attack, potentially armed with nuclear weapons. 

[A]ny indications that the United States might be wavering from its nuclear guarantees would trigger worst-case fears that the United States, above all, would not want to stimulate.

Both U.S. allies are therefore strongly opposed to a U.S. “no first use” pledge, and would likely have deep concerns about a sole purpose commitment. Though the United States possesses a wide array of non-nuclear strike options in the event of a North Korean attack directed against South Korea or Japan, any indications that the United States might be wavering from its nuclear guarantees would trigger worst-case fears that the United States, above all, would not want to stimulate. At the same time, choosing not to issue a “no first use” pledge should not in any way suggest that the United States favors nuclear use, which would play directly into North Korean propaganda strategy. Rather, the United States should not preemptively remove the nuclear option, especially when North Korea is in overt defiance of its non-proliferation obligations and is single-mindedly intent on a building a nuclear weapons capability.

The Obama administration must therefore balance its clear desire to advance a non-nuclear legacy with Northeast Asia’s inescapable realities. Enunciating a “no first use” doctrine or a sole purpose commitment in the administration’s waning months in office is a bridge too far. Though the United States can and should engage South Korea and Japan in much deeper consultations about extended deterrence, it cannot put at risk the security of allies directly threatened by attack from a nuclear-armed adversary. 

The next U.S. president will have to square this circle. In the meantime, the Obama administration should do all that it can to plan for the road ahead, even if it means policy pledges that might not be as visionary as it would prefer. 

A how-to guide for managing the end of the post-Cold War era. Read all the Order from Chaos content »


Get daily updates from Brookings