In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on USNews.com
Halloween is on the horizon, and the ghost of nuclear weapons rises from the autumn earth to bedevil the American election.
It is disturbing to witness that there is competition for the attention of the American voter between issues related to nuclear weapons and issues of personality. The United States has lived with the specter of nuclear weapons since 1945 and was the only power to use them in human history. The limited amount of time spent on nuclear weapons this election has focused on whether or not the United States should follow what the Obama administration is considering: a no-first-use policy, a pledge that the U.S. will not use nuclear weapons unless it is first attacked with them.
This destabilizing policy, even if limited to this administration’s penchant for truth-challenged rhetoric, would be a disastrous strategic error with no positive outcome. First, it would destroy U.S. deterrence, especially in non-nuclear areas. There are a multitude of spheres where this may encourage a non-nuclear attack on us or our allies. Although American conventional arms enjoy clear primacy, they also cannot be everywhere at all times and in all places. This strain worsens if we are engaged in a large-scale conflict while another enemy attacks American interests. Further, this policy may degrade nuclear deterrence, as a no-first-use policy indicates hesitancy in an area of national security where ambiguity is catastrophic.
It is insightful to look back at Cold War history to understand the complexity and importance of this issue. A recently published book, “The American Bomb in Britain” by Ken Young, outlines the complex decisions and relationship between nuclear weapons and America’s most important ally. It combines two areas that the media have failed to focus on: strategic alliances and nuclear weapons. It excellently illustrates many of the same foreign policy problems of today. While the United States was forced by geostrategic imperatives to look at the grand scale of world politics and national security threats, Britain, reeling from World War II, was hesitant and often unwilling to pay the financial and political cost for both the alliance and its own survival.
Young sums this up: “While it would be a travesty to present this as a story of dominance and submission, it becomes clear that at every stage the initiative lay with the U.S., simply because Americans had the clear and unambiguous understanding of their national security interests that the British lacked. The British – ambivalent and equivocal – simply respond to American overtures, sometimes eagerly, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes in apparent absence of mind.” One of the most marked chapters – “Strike hard, strike sure… and strike together?” – paints a picture of sporadic chaos at the top, corrected by clear cooperation and relationship building among the national security professionals.
It becomes clear throughout the book that this story’s relevance is beyond its own historical purview. It goes to the heart of our debates and discussions today that surround our friendships and our nuclear ghosts: The United States, even when dealing with this unique, important and critical special relationship has had to deal with the problem of freeriding, the domestic politics of a foreign nation, the budget priorities of that foreign country and the perceived and real inequality of the relationship. It points to the crucial nature of personal relations between allies, as illustrated by the bond discussed in Young’s book between air force chiefs Carl A. Spaatz and Sir Arthur Tedder.
This is all dwarfed by the existential question of nuclear threat posed by those that wish harm to the Anglo-American world and the geostrategic needs that should dictate decisions made by those in Washington and in the capitals of our allies. Today, the situation is made exponentially worse by the threat that at some point, a toxic triangle of rogue states, transnational terror groups and weapons of mass destruction will come together to threaten Western civilization, and once again, it will take the same hard work that is demonstrated by the Cold War professionals to weather the storm.
This makes the current crisis ever more salient: The strategic ambiguity created by the Obama years has diminished deterrence and therefore international peace. The American strategic doctrine of deter, assure, dissuade, defeat is the only rational and moral policy that not only benefits the United States, but many of our beleaguered allies as well.