James M. Acton
The opening words of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty (NPT), “Each of the Parties to the Treaty,” are frequently ignored.
At first blush, it seems almost counterintuitive to suggest that the abolition of
nuclear weapons is anything other than the responsibility of the states that possess
them. Yet, if disarmament is viewed as more than just the mechanics of verifiably
eliminating weapons—if it is viewed as the effort to create the conditions
that would make a world without nuclear weapons more secure than a world with them—then
those words must be taken seriously. Disarmament has to become, as Scott Sagan argues,
a shared responsibility.
Shared responsibility, however, does not mean equal responsibility. Nuclear-weapons
states (NWS) can and should lead the process. They can and should take steps toward
abolition, such as deep cuts in their arsenals, regardless of whether non-nuclear-weapons
states (NNWS) play a constructive role. But abolition will not be possible through
the efforts of the NWS alone. There are some security concerns—such as preventing
proliferation and managing breakout—that require the participation of NNWS.
Sagan argues that NNWS allied to the United States could play a special role in
helping to shape U.S. nuclear doctrine. I agree with him. U.S. allies can make it
politically feasible for the United States to work toward abolition.
It is hard to overstate the degree to which extended deterrence shapes the debate
in Washington about nuclear deterrence. The United States finds it increasingly
untenable to argue that, for its own defense, it needs an arsenal nearly as large
or diverse as its current one or a doctrine so permissive that it reserves the right,
for example, to respond to a chemical attack with nuclear weapons.1
And although some try to defend the current U.S. force posture,
or something not too dissimilar, on the grounds of self-defense, most have shifted
their focus to U.S. allies.2 At issue
is not whether U.S. allies are effectively protected, but whether they believe they
are. In U.S. strategic thinking, assuring allies is a task in its own right, and
as experience has shown, it is much harder than successfully deterring their enemies.
Assurance is also probably the single most important factor in determining the U.S.
force posture—as the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review has made clear.
Perhaps the most bizarre debate within the Nuclear Posture Review has concerned
the future of the nuclear-armed variant of the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM/N).3 For the last nineteen years, the entire TLAM/N force,
which was designed to be deployed on submarines, has been kept in land-based storage.
Not only is it an outdated system that no longer fills a military niche, but it
is probably too unreliable to use.4 Unsurprisingly, the
U.S. Navy is arguing that the system should be dismantled in order to free up the
resources currently expended on keeping it in permanent hibernation. TLAM/N has
strong supporters, however, both inside and outside government, who argue that it
is vital to assuring Japan. Indeed, senior Japanese officials apparently voiced
this sentiment to the congressionally mandated Strategic Posture Commission, which
issued its final report in May 2009.5
At the time of writing, the Nuclear Posture Review has not yet been
completed, and the outcome of the TLAM/N debate is unknown. The fact that the United
States is seriously considering not abandoning an obsolete and militarily redundant
system, however, is testament to the importance of assuring allies. Assurance is
also considered the most cogent argument against significant doctrinal changes,
and it is an important argument against deep cuts. It is even invoked as a reason
against U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on the grounds
that a permanent foreclosing of the option to test might cause allies to lose confidence
in the U.S. deterrent (it bears emphasizing, however, that few, if any, in President
Barack Obama’s administration share this view and that all U.S. allies advocate
U.S. allies can help undercut this series of arguments. A large
part of the challenge for them is to realize that, logically, what deters their
enemies ought to be enough to assure them. They then need to engage with the United
States to encourage it not to retain, for the sake of assurance, capabilities or
operational plans that are unnecessary for deterrence.
The politics of the NPT Review Process is, ironically, not conducive to serious
disarmament efforts. As much as extended deterrence is a pervasive concern of those
responsible for U.S. nuclear weapons, it is ignored in NPT forums. The discussion
of deterrence—extended or central—is practically verboten.
Observing this omission, international relations scholar William Walker has argued
precisely because the NPT is a disarmament treaty, the Treaty and its Conferences
can neither ascribe value to nuclear deterrence nor countenance discussion of it,
irrespective of the importance that leading powers and their allies attach to it,
and irrespective of the role that it might play in paving the way for deep arms
reductions or disarmament. To pay open homage to nuclear deterrence is to jeopardize
the non-proliferation norm and regime. Nuclear deterrence is always the ghost at
the table whose presence is understood but whose contribution to regional and global
security cannot openly be acknowledged or weighed.7
If the NPT Review Conference is to be more than a purely reactive body
that, once in every two or so tries, can agree to recognize half-hearted progress
and identify a few relatively uncontroversial next steps, and instead proactively
charts a course toward a world without nuclear weapons, it must be able to discuss
nuclear deterrence. Although nuclear weapons may not play as large or important
a role as some critics of the abolition agenda suggest, they are a stabilizing factor
in international relations. This point was made, refreshingly, in the final report
of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Although
rejecting some of the dogma of nuclear deterrence, it did recognize that “it
is hard to contest the almost universally held view that the absence of great power
conflict since 1945 must be at least in part attributed to the fear of nuclear war.”
8 Without making a similar acknowledgment,
the NPT Review Conference is not able to recognize the need to develop alternatives
to nuclear deterrence, let alone make progress toward actually doing so.
There is a second, more political, reason why it would be useful for the NPT Review
Conference to acknowledge and discuss nuclear deterrence. The
NWS sometimes complain (with some truth) that the progress they have
already made toward disarmament has not been recognized.9 If Russia and the United States were to make deeper cuts, then,
according to one line of reasoning, they might find themselves under increasing
pressure to finish the job and eliminate their remaining nuclear weapons regardless
of whether the conditions that would make it safe to do so had been established.
In this scenario, NPT politics could become more poisonous and divisive than they
are today. If the Review Conference could recognize the role played by nuclear deterrence,
it could acknowledge that going from low numbers to zero is a much greater challenge
than reducing from current levels to low numbers. In turn, this could increase the
willingness of Russia and the United States to make deep cuts.
NNWS allied to the United States have an important role to play in helping the NPT
Review Conference engage in a sensible discussion about nuclear deterrence. States
such as Australia, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, and Turkey, which have good disarmament
credentials and are protected by U.S. security guarantees, are well placed to acknowledge
the importance they place on extended deterrence and initiate a serious discussion
of how to develop a security architecture that would render it obsolete.
Discussing nuclear deterrence at an NPT Review Conference or urging the United States
to de-emphasize assurance are easy suggestions to make, but they would be painful
in practice. Daring to mention deterrence in an NPT forum would draw howls of protest
in some quarters. Serious engagement with the United States about doctrine could
cause friction. And, most important, either task would expose domestic fissures
that many states want to leave buried.
Some of these fissures have been exposed in Japan with the debate about TLAM/N and
the advocacy of some Japanese officials for maintaining it. Presumably in response
to domestic concern that Japan was impeding progress toward disarmament, Japanese
Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada took the unusual step of writing publicly to his
U.S. counterpart, Hillary Clinton, to inform her that the “Japanese Government
has expressed no view concerning whether or not your government should possess particular
[weapons] systems such as TLAM/N and RNEP [Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator]. If,
hypothetically, such a view was expressed, it would clearly be at variance with
my views, which are in favor of nuclear disarmament.”10
Given that the Strategic Posture Commission report makes clear that
the Japanese officials who briefed it strongly supported retaining TLAM/N, Okada’s
letter implies a deep division between the new Japanese government and the bureaucracy.
Japan is hardly the only state internally divided on these issues. NATO
member states are, too. The current NATO Strategic Concept contains the claim, highlighted
by Sagan, that “nuclear weapons make a unique contribution in rendering the
risks of aggression against the Alliance incalculable and unacceptable.” The
adoption of this concept was supported by all NATO member states. Yet, at the 2005
NPT Review Conference, Norway asserted that “nuclear weapons must not be seen as an attractive option that will provide additional security.”11 Similarly, a Canadian working paper from the same meeting argued
that “doctrinal or policy utterances that give the impression that nuclear
weapons are being accorded increased importance in respective security policies are
anathema to disarmament efforts.”12 Because the NATO Strategic Concept and its doctrinal utterances do not increase
the role of nuclear weapons, the Canadian statement is not literally inconsistent
with them, but the spirit of it certainly is.
It is tempting for “disarmament advocates” or “deterrence advocates”
to seize, respectively, upon public endorsement of disarmament goals or private
utterances about the importance of nuclear deterrence as representing the “real”
Japan or Norway or Canada. The reality, however, is that both opinions are equally
real, and both have strong roots. It will be difficult to downplay the importance
of assurance with the United States while acknowledging the role of deterrence for
the NPT Review Conference. It will require those who are charged with defense to
acknowledge that they must play a role in achieving disarmament goals and those
tasked with disarmament to recognize the reality of deterrence. Nevertheless, there
is a potentially unifying vision: a disarmament process that recognizes the importance
of, but also seeks to supplant, nuclear deterrence.
Beyond reconciling internal divisions, U.S. allies will also have to educate themselves
if they are to take on either of the tasks suggested here. One of the most telling
parts of Foreign Minister Okada’s letter to Secretary Clinton was his statement
that “the Japanese Government is not in a position to judge whether it is
necessary or desirable for your government to possess particular [weapons] systems.”
Many other U.S. allies (even those within NATO with its Nuclear Planning Group)
may feel the same way. This helps to explain why assurance is difficult; a state
that does not understand something is less likely to trust it. Ultimately, if Foreign
Minister Okada is to be convinced by the “ongoing explanations of your government’s
extended deterrence policy” that he hopes to receive from the United States
if TLAM/N is retired, he and his government will need to understand much more about
U.S. extended deterrence strategy. If Japan is to go further and play an active role in shaping U.S.
views on assurance, it will have to move from being a passive recipient of U.S.
explanations to a partner in a two-way dialogue.
Perhaps the first challenge facing U.S. allies is to realize that they can play
a constructive role in disarmament. They need to be more than simply observers.
NATO members, in particular, discuss tactical nuclear-weapon reductions as if they
had no say in the issue. At the 2005 NPT Review Conference, Belgium, for example,
stated its belief that “the reduction of non-strategic nuclear arsenals, with
a view to their final elimination, is an integral part of the process of global
arms reductions and disarmament.”13 Yet Belgium hosts nuclear weapons on its soil and, as a NATO member, has a say—indeed
a veto—in Strategic Concept discussions. It could clearly do more than just
recognize that disarmament must ultimately involve tactical nuclear weapons. And,
indeed, as this essay goes to press, it appears poised to start playing a more proactive
This is a lot to expect from U.S. allies. It is convenient politically
for many of them to fail to recognize the role that they could play in disarmament.
The suggestions that they should engage both with the United States to de-emphasize
assurance and with the NPT Review Conference to acknowledge the reality of deterrence
will not be attractive, but both tasks are obligatory under Article VI. The nuclear
disarmament negotiations that Article VI enjoins all states to commence should not
be limited to talks on a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons at some indefinite time
in the future; there are plenty of opportunities for U.S. allies to advance disarmament
in the forums in which they participate today.
for a more thoughtful exploration see Clark A. Murdoch et al., Exploring the Nuclear
Posture Implications of Extended Deterrence and Assurance: Workshop Proceeding and
Key Takeaways (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International
Studies, 2009), http://csis.org/files/publication/091218_nuclear_posture.pdf.