For decades, U.S. administrations have embraced a policy of strategic ambiguity regarding the use of nuclear weapons.
While administrations have considered shifting to a no first use policy, they inevitably understood it would damage U.S. and allied security. Indeed, the Obama administration studied this closely and rejected such a policy change not once, but twice. Earlier this year, our British allies also rejected this change, and they maintain their own policy of strategic ambiguity.
But President Joe Biden campaigned on a “sole purpose” nuclear policy, and his administration is now considering its adoption. “Sole purpose” is another name for a “no first use” policy and must be rejected.
As much as the world dislikes nuclear weapons, they are an important tool that helps maintain stability around the world. Declaring that the United States will never be the first to use a nuclear weapon represents the worst in potential policy. It scares our friends, encourages our adversaries and damages the very nonproliferation goals it claims to advance.
Then-President Barack Obama’s 2010 nuclear posture review acknowledged nuclear weapons should still play a role in deterring “conventional or chemical and biological weapons attacks.” All of these threats — and nuclear threats themselves — have only grown since then. It is dangerous and naïve to pretend otherwise.
The Biden administration says it wants to strengthen U.S. alliances, but our allies have been clear with me that they strongly object to a sole purpose policy. During a recent committee hearing, a Biden nominee denied our allies would be betrayed by such a policy change and suggested all we need to do is “educate our allies.” I believe our allies understand their security challenges far better than the Biden administration.
This, of course, would not be the first time the Biden administration has ignored allied concerns on mutual security interests. Among the starkest examples is that the administration has made an agreement with Germany on Nord Stream 2 despite the objections of most NATO allies, its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and its inability to communicate the AUKUS deal to our friends in France.
An embrace of a sole purpose doctrine will erode our allies’ confidence in our commitment to NATO’s Article 5, as well as U.S. commitments to transatlantic and northeast Asian security. If the Biden administration chooses this path, it could destroy the nuclear umbrella that has protected our allies and discouraged nuclear weapons proliferation.
Beyond abandoning our allies and closest friends around the world, a sole purpose nuclear policy would embolden China and Russia and risk new aggression and coercion. Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, called China’s nuclear buildup “breathtaking” and noted China will soon possess weapons that would make them “capable of coercion.”
At the same time, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall recently warned of a new system that gives China a surprise, first use nuclear capability, which arguably violates the Outer Space Treaty. The challenges that arise from China’s ability to threaten more and more U.S. and allied territory are immense and growing. Meanwhile, Russia has pursued a massive nuclear modernization effort and developed new delivery systems to evade U.S. defenses and strike targets with greater precision and lethality, including hypersonic cruise missiles, nuclear-powered undersea drones, and larger ICBMs.
Finally, proponents of a sole purpose doctrine see it as only a first step toward U.S. disarmament. This policy is in fact a stalking horse for unilateral cuts to U.S. nuclear forces, regardless of the threats from China and Russia.
No one wants to see the use of nuclear weapons ever again. However, endorsing a sole purpose doctrine and surrendering our nuclear capabilities before the rest of the world agrees to do so will only destabilize the international system. Nuclear deterrence works; it has promoted international security and served the United States and our allies well. Now is not the time to abandon 70-plus years of proven policy.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.