The recent essay on declaratory policy by ACW’s own Jeff Lewis is one of those rare writings that brings the reader to think about a well-trodden subject anew. Jeff is onto something when he says that the representatives of a nuclear weapons state — America, China, or any other — shouldn’t even try to answer what-if questions meant to exhume sinister contradictions in their declaratory policy. That’s so whether the policy is no-first-use, “sole purpose,” or some other formula that sends the same basic message with the necessary clarity.
As Jeff says, we really ought to get this one right. U.S. declaratory policy was crafted with the Soviet Union in mind. Although change is 20 years overdue, it still could not come at a much better time than in the months before the May 2010 NPT Review Conference. I’ve already raised this point in two columns for the Bulletin, first in October 2009, and again last week, but let’s have one more stab at it.
Declaratory Policy and Nonproliferation
Perhaps the most important reason to change U.S. declaratory policy has little to do with deterrence requirements. When it comes to nuclear deterrence, our cup runneth over. But when it comes to nonproliferation, we’re experiencing some challenges.
The stated role of nuclear weapons illuminates the role of nonproliferation. If the U.S. nuclear arsenal is meant to coerce future opponents, then nonproliferation becomes an adjunct to global American power, which is already considerable. If, on the other hand, nuclear weapons play a strictly defensive role for the United States and its allies, then nonproliferation can be a matter of broadly common interest.
Come this May at the RevCon, when Washington puts forward its proposals to strengthen the NPT, both Washington and Tehran will be courting the votes of some of the same countries. These include states that are neither enemies nor fully-fledged allies of the United States, and perhaps hold some reservations about the idea of a unipolar world. In this situation, the Nuclear Posture Review can deal cards into the hand of the U.S. delegation, or take them away.
So let’s recognize declaratory policy for what it is, first and foremost: an instrument of diplomacy. And let’s also recognize that “deter enemies” and “assure allies” is not the whole of diplomatic endeavor. The United States aspires to lead the international community, which is not the same thing as leading NATO. The RevCon will put that aspiration to the test.