Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense.
The purpose of nuclear weapons, or any weapon in the U.S. inventory, is to enhance the security of the United States. By declaring that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against states that do not possess nuclear weapons, President Obama has enhanced the security of the country in two ways.
First, since the end of the Cold War, the primary threat from nuclear weapons has not been an all-out exchange with Russia. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals by nearly 80 percent. Rather, the danger is that nuclear weapons might fall into the wrong hands; specifically, into the hands of extreme regimes like Iran or North Korea, or of violent extremist groups like al Qaeda. By establishing a policy that says the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states who are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), that gives countries an incentive to join and fulfill their obligations to the NPT. Moreover, it sends a signal to nuclear renegade nations that refuse to join the NPT—or who do not comply with their obligations under the NPT—that they could be targeted with nuclear weapons.
Second, by embracing a policy of not using nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states, the United States enhances its moral position to lead an effort to prevent proliferation and secure nuclear materials around the world. We know that terrorist networks like al Qaeda have tried to acquire material for a nuclear weapon. We also know that there is enough highly enriched uranium and plutonium floating around the world to make over 100,000 nuclear weapons. It is not an accident that President Obama was able to lead a global effort to get dozens of nations to agree to a list of specific commitments to eliminate or lock down nuclear materials one week after announcing his new nuclear doctrine.
Critics argue that this new doctrine is a departure from previous policies and it increases the likelihood that the United States will be attacked by a nonnuclear state using chemical or biological weapons. Both of these critiques are wrong.
The policy of not using nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states was first enunciated back in 1957 by President Dwight Eisenhower. As described by Professor Campbell Craig at the University of Southampton, Eisenhower took this step to combat the growing clamor that the United States could wage and win a limited nuclear war. Ronald Reagan went further, arguing in 1984 that a nuclear war could not be won and should not be fought. U.S. conventional weapons are becoming so devastating that there is no need to use nuclear weapons to respond to an attack on the United States, even if that attack should involve chemical or biological weapons. Even if the United States did say it would use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states, would that policy be credible? After all, our policymakers refused to use nuclear weapons and accepted a stalemate and defeat in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, where over 100,000 American servicemen and women were killed.
General Charles Horner, the Allied Air Force Commander during the First Gulf War, put it quite graphically some 14 years ago when he said, "I came to the realization that nuclear weapons had little utility when I realized that even if Saddam Hussein had used a nuclear weapon on us, we would have to retaliate on a conventional basis."
Read why President Obama's nuclear weapons policy is a bad idea, by Rep. Buck McKeon of California.