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Home > Publications > Research Papers > > Chapter 2: U.S. Allies and the Politics of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons
Shared Responsibilities for Nuclear Disarmament: A Global Debate

Chapter 2: U.S. Allies and the Politics of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

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 CTBT ratification).6

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 that

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 role.14

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.


1. For the argument that the United States needs a more diverse and flexible arsenal to ensure the continued relevance of nuclear deterrence in protecting U.S. interests see Keith Payne, “How Much is Enough?: A Goal-Driven Approach to Defining Key Principles,” Third Annual Conference on Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century, Washington, D.C., January 29, 2009, http://www.lanl.gov/conferences/sw/2009/docs/payne_livermore-2.pdf.

2. See, for example, Melanie Kirkpatrick, “Why We Don’t Want a Nuclear-Free World: The Former Defense Secretary on the U.S. Deterrent and the Terrorist Threat,” The Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124726489588925407.html; 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.

3. For a more detailed description of this debate see James M. Acton, “Extended Deterrence and Communicating Resolve,” Strategic Insights VIII (5) (December 2009), http://www.nps.edu/Academics/centers/ccc/publications/OnlineJournal/2009/Dec/actonDec09.html.

4. Jeffrey Lewis, “A Problem With the Nuclear Tomahawk,” New America Foundation, December 1, 2009, http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/file_download/215/Tomahawk2.pdf.

5. William J. Perry et al., America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2009), 26, http://www.usip.org/files/America's_Strategic_Posture_Auth_Ed.pdf.

6. See, for example, John Kyl, “Why We Need to Test Nuclear Weapons,” The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704500604574483224117732120.html.

7. William Walker, “International Nuclear Order: A Rejoinder,” International Affairs 83 (4) (July 2007): 752.

8. Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers (Canberra: International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, 2009), 61, http://www.icnnd.org/reference/reports/ent/pdf/ICNND_Report-EliminatingNuclearThreats.pdf.

9. See, for example, Frank Miller, “Disarmament and Deterrence: A Practitioner’s View,” in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, ed. George Perkovich and James M. Acton (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009), 150, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/abolishing_nuclear_weapons_debate.pdf.

10. Letter from Katsuya Okada to Hillary Clinton, December 24, 2009, unofficial translation, http://icnndngojapan.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/20091224_okada_letter_en.pdf.

11. Statement by Norway to the 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, New York, May 18, 2005, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/npt/RevCon05/GDstatements/norway.doc.

12. Canada, “Nuclear Disarmament,” working paper submitted to the 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, May 17, 2005, NPT/CONF.2005/WP.38, http://www.un.org/events/npt2005/working%20papers.html.

13. Statement by Belgium to the 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, unofficial translation, New York, May 4, 2005, http://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2005/statements/npt04belgium-french.pdf.

14. “Five NATO States Want U.S. Nukes Out of Europe, Report Says,” Global Security Newswire, February 19, 2010, http://gsn.nti.org/gsn/nw_20100219_2293.php.