The Utility of the First-Use Doctrine

One day after the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016 in the House. The bill would “prohibit the President from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.” The press release announcing the bill cited concerns about Trump’s ability to be trusted with the dangerous weapons if he were elected president. Markey asserted that, “maintaining the option of using nuclear weapons first in a conflict…increases the risk of unintended nuclear escalation. The President should not use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack.” Controversy about first use surfaced over the summer, in response to an op-ed urging Obama to renounce the doctrine written by James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Despite the flurry of speculation that followed, it seems that Obama is unlikely to renounce first use during his remaining time in office.

The bill that Lieu and Markey introduced would effectively eliminate the strategic and other advantages that the United States derives from its current policy of ambiguity surrounding the first use of nuclear weapons. Most importantly, it would make the United States’ allies (South Korea and Estonia, for example) demand much larger commitments of U.S. conventional forces for their defense. Donald Trump has drawn a lot of fire for his views on various subjects, including his comments about nuclear weapons and his insistence that the United States’ allies take more responsibility for their own defense. The United States cannot have it both ways: it cannot maintain an elaborate and extensive array of commitments to defend allies around the world while at the same time minimizing its spending on defense and the current size of its military, unless it retains the possibility of nuclear first use. I recently published a piece with the National Interest about why retaining the first-use doctrine would be useful for the United States—even if we hope that the United States would never actually introduce nuclear weapons to a crisis. You can read the piece here.




Great Power Status and Nuclear Weapons: The UK Case

In her first major parliamentary appearance since assuming the role of British Prime Minister, Theresa May recently won a vote to renew Britain’s commitment to nuclear weapons.  The British parliament voted on July 18 to replace Britain’s aging fleet of nuclear-equipped submarines, and this vote is being viewed as an effort to cement the United Kingdom’s status as a major player in international politics in the wake of the recent vote to exit the European Union. May asserted that it was time for the UK to be “stepping up” to meet its responsibilities to NATO and to meet threats to Britain’s security head-on. Given the possibility of increased nuclear threats in the future, “it would be an act of gross irresponsibility to lose the ability to meet such threats by discarding the ultimate insurance against those risks in the future.” The vote to renew the submarine program also highlighted strains within the UK. The Trident force is based in Scotland, but the Scottish population widely opposes the nuclear program and has threatened to hold another referendum on independence in the wake of the Brexit vote. It is not clear where the Trident force would go if the Scots do vote for independence.

The Trident submarines have been Britain’s only nuclear weapons force since 1998, and one is always at sea ready to launch a weapon if necessary. The nuclear-equipped submarine fleet is considered the ultimate nuclear deterrent: capable of staying at sea continuously, they are nearly impossible to detect and track and thus they grant near perfect certainty that one would be able to retaliate against a nuclear attack on one’s homeland. One of May’s first acts as Prime Minister would have been to write a letter outlining the conditions under which the commanders of Trident submarines on patrol would be authorized to retaliate with nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom that rendered the British government unable to make the decision. Every new Prime Minister writes such a letter and it is destroyed when the individual leaves office.

Does the possession of nuclear weapons signify great power status? Maybe it did at one time—back in the Cold War when the US, UK, France, China and Soviet Union were the only states that possessed these weapons. Now, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel also wield these weapons without obvious great-power status. As Ian Jack points out, the UK is largely dependent on help from the United States to construct its Trident submarine force. Why could the UK not simply rely on its American ally to provide a nuclear deterrent, especially given the high cost of building and maintaining this program? Does Britain truly view these weapons as necessary for its survival, or is it about clinging to the United Kingdom’s status as a major player on the international stage? In other words, in the twenty-first century, do nuclear weapons serve any useful strategic purpose or do they function mainly as symbols?


Iranian Perspectives on the Nuclear Deal

The nuclear agreement that the United States reached with Iran last fall was not without controversy; I argued then and continue to believe that implementing this deal was and is our best option for limiting Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Iran has made significant progress on implementing the terms of the agreement, despite the continued efforts of the Republican-controlled Congress to undermine it. (The specifics of the deal are rather complicated; although many international sanctions were lifted against Iran in the fall—particularly those affecting the oil industry—many sanctions that are part of U.S. law remain in place, and Congress seems determined to maintain these existing sanctions, regardless of how this would hamper efforts at reconciliation.) Some observers viewed the gains made by moderates in Iran’s elections last month as evidence that the nuclear deal may be helping to marginalize more hard-line conservative forces in the Iranian government, as Obama and many others had hoped it would.

This weekend, the Opinion page of the New York Times featured a project by photographer Ako Salemi, who photographed and interviewed people in Tehran and Mashhad about their opinions of the nuclear deal. In keeping with one of the themes of last week’s post, it provides us a unique window into how Iranians view the nuclear agreement and its impact on Iran’s membership in the international community. We should not assume that this represents a random sample of Iranian opinion, but Salemi does manage to capture an interesting cross-section of Iranian society.

It is clear from the interviews that not everyone views the deal as likely to have a positive impact. Rahman Sanaie, a janitor who lives in Iran, asserted that, “Nothing will change in my life, maybe only a slight increase in my salary. I hope it will bring peace for my country.” Amir Hosseinzadeh argued, “The deal has no effect on my life and gives me no hope for my future, either. I think only rich people will see changes in their life. Just look at the increase in the price of beef.” Feryal Mostofi, a businesswoman living in Tehran, was somewhat more optimistic. “I think the renewed cultural dialogue between Iran and other countries is one of the most important benefits of this agreement. It is useful for Iranian women to come out from this isolation and become more active in business.” Many other perspectives are represented among the photographs and I encourage you to check out the project for yourself.  It is a vivid illustration of the richness of political dialogue in another country at a time when we are tempted to view other societies as homogenous and monolithic.

South Korea’s Nuclear Options

In response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test, a debate has reemerged in South Korea about whether the country should deploy nuclear weapons of its own. Last week, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn declared that the government maintained its official position that South Korea would not possess or develop nuclear weapons. This is not the first time this debate has bubbled up to the surface. In November 2010, when it was revealed that North Korea had built an advanced plant for the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU, which can be used to construct a nuclear weapon), the South Korean defense minister raised the possibility of reintroducing US tactical nuclear weapons.

Some background: South Korea has a sophisticated infrastructure for the production of nuclear energy and cooperates closely with the United States on the development of its nuclear industry. South Korea did pursue a nuclear weapon of its own during the 1970s, but it abandoned the program under pressure from the United States and signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1975 as a state not permitted to develop nuclear weapons. The United States stationed tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea during the Cold War, but these weapons were withdrawn in 1991, when North and South Korea signed a declaration calling for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. You can learn more about the history of South Korea’s nuclear programs from the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

South Korea continues to enjoy a military alliance with the United States that lends it protection under the “nuclear umbrella.” That is, the United States would respond to any nuclear attack on South Korea (presumably, one launched by North Korea) by launching a nuclear strike against the attacker. By this logic of “extended deterrence,” South Korea enjoys the protection of the American nuclear arsenal without having to acquire weapons of its own.

It will be interesting to see whether confidence in the nuclear umbrella begins to erode if and when North Korea develops a missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States. Currently, they do not possess such a missile, and the succession of failed tests suggests that they are still a long way from such a capability. If, however, North Korea were in a position to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, then South Korea may start to wonder about the United States’ nuclear guarantee. As long as North Korea cannot hit back after a retaliatory strike by the United States (in response to the North’s nuclear attack on the South), then the United States does not have to fear for its own safety when it launches the retaliatory nuclear strike against North Korea. If, however, North Korea might be capable of launching a nuclear weapon after the United States’ retaliatory strike, then the calculation becomes quite different. South Korea may find itself wondering whether the United States would be willing to sacrifice Los Angeles to respond to an attack on Seoul. In other words, South Korea (and others) may find itself questioning the credibility of the United States’ nuclear deterrent and may start to wonder if it really does need nuclear weapons of its own.

Questions exactly like these arose among the United States’ western European allies during the Cold War, when the United States was similarly pledging to retaliate against a Soviet attack on western Europe (either conventional or nuclear, depending on the time period) with a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In fact, doubts about the credibility of the American deterrent helped spur France to pursue its own nuclear weapons program. Hopefully we are still a long way from the day when South Korea will find it necessary to act on similar doubts.


Iran Nuclear Agreement: Diplomacy Bears Fruit

Over the weekend, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) certified that Iran had met all of its commitments to roll back and limit its nuclear programs under the terms of a U.S.-backed deal reached last summer. In exchange, some economic sanctions have been lifted and the West will unfreeze roughly $100 billion in Iranian assets. The lifting of these sanctions should open up new opportunities for investment in Iran’s economy, particularly in oil. The deal also included a prisoner exchange in which five Americans were freed from Iranian custody.

Under the terms of the agreement, Iran has shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel to Russia, shut down a reactor designed to produce plutonium, and dismantled more than 12,000 centrifuges used in the production of highly enriched uranium, among other initiatives. The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining how the deal limits Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon here.  It is important to note that most aspects of the American trade embargo remain in place.  This nuclear deal lifts many international sanctions on Iran’s oil and financial industries, which will provide the country with much-needed cash in a period of low oil prices.

There are, of course, no guarantees that this agreement will permanently eliminate Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. The long-term success of the agreement depends on the IAEA’s ability to access and monitor sites in Iran to verify continued compliance. This proved to be a major stumbling block in US-Iraq relations in the 1990s, but it should be noted that the Iraqis never did succeed in restarting a program capable of producing a nuclear weapon during all those years of fighting about IAEA inspections. (More on this in my forthcoming book, Cheap Threats, which I will be discussing on the blog in the coming weeks.)

As I argued this fall and as the Obama administration has consistently asserted, this agreement is the best available means for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The administration should see the successful implementation of this agreement as a major foreign policy achievement—one that took years of painstaking negotiations without the instant gratification of bombing or other short-term military instruments. Critics assert that the deal leaves the United States and its allies vulnerable, that it does not do enough to disarm the “rogue” Iranian regime, that negotiating makes the United States look weak…there is no shortage of articles (or Presidential candidates) criticizing it. Are there reasons to be concerned about Iran’s foreign policies? Absolutely—but the same can and should be said about its rival Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s compliance with the agreement also dovetails nicely with last week’s discussion of North Korea and the concept of rationality. Critics have long alleged that Iran, like North Korea, is a rogue nation with crazy leaders bent on hastening the arrival of the apocalypse. This deal demonstrates that it is possible to negotiate with regimes that we do not necessarily understand and that do not necessarily share our own views of the international system. Of course, comparing Iran and North Korea is a little like comparing apples and oranges, and North Korea has successfully manipulated international negotiations to its own benefit on several occasions. We can, however, take this agreement as evidence of the promise of diplomacy in a world that CNN would like us to believe is teetering on the brink of meltdown.

North Korea’s Latest Provocation

North Korea claimed on January 6 that it had conducted an underground test of a hydrogen bomb. If this claim is true, it would mean that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has advanced beyond the production of the more basic atomic weapons it has tested in the past. At this point, scientists are still collecting data to try to determine what actually happened. Most seem to dispute the claim that North Korea successfully tested a true hydrogen bomb, although they may have succeeded in testing a “boosted” atomic weapon, which is far less advanced and far less destructive than an H-bomb. Experts currently estimate North Korea’s test had a yield of roughly 6 kilotons; a Soviet test of a hydrogen bomb in 1961 produced a blast of 50,000 kilotons. (A yield of 1 kiloton is equivalent to the explosion of 1,000 tons of TNT. “Real” hydrogen bombs produce a staggeringly large explosion.) The New York Times has a great series of graphics explaining the basic science behind the different types of weapons here.

Interestingly, North Korea also released footage last week claiming to show the recent successful launch of an SLBM, or submarine-launched ballistic missile. Experts now claim that the video has been doctored with images from 2014, and that the heavy manipulation of the footage was an attempt to obscure the fact that the test seems to have been a failure.

These tests coincided with the January 8 birthday of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. It is not unusual for North Korea to launch provocative military displays around key calendar dates or for its leader to use such displays to try to shore up his own power. What is somewhat unusual about this latest provocation is the fact that China has joined the international community in condemning the nuclear test. China has also indicated that it would support punitive action by the UN Security Council—presumably, additional sanctions. China has been reluctant to break ties with North Korea in the past and tends not to be thrilled about Security Council sanctions in general, so this may be a significant development in the international campaign to contain the North Korean regime.

I am always struck by the extent to which news coverage and commentary on North Korea refers to the country and its leader as delusional, insane, or irrational. We have a history in the United States of labeling certain leaders of other countries as crazy and treating them as such—Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein are two obvious examples. This has the unfortunate consequence of leading us to believe that such leaders do not respond to international pressure (convenient if you are trying to drum up support for a regime-change campaign), and to both over- and underestimate their competence. That is, we view such leaders as both possessed of the ability to wreak unparalleled destruction in the international community and incapable of responding to the basic strategic realities of international politics.

Since 2001, the United States has invaded or overthrown the regimes of several countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—none of which possessed nuclear weapons. It has, however, refrained from invading North Korea, which has both one of the worst human rights records of any state on earth (far worse than that of Libya, which everyone was so eager to liberate in 2011), and (as of 2006, i.e., after the U.S. invasion of Iraq), a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. I don’t think this is a coincidence and I certainly don’t think North Korea views it as one, either.  We may have a hard time viewing Kim’s behavior as “rational” in terms that fit with our own worldview, but it is a dangerous oversimplification to view him as a deranged clown and doing so can distort our long-term strategy for managing North Korea.



Economic Sanctions: The Iran Case

On November 2, the New York Times reported that Iran has begun the process of decommissioning thousands of centrifuges used for the production of highly-enriched uranium in compliance with the deal it reached with the international community this summer.   Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has endorsed the deal (with some conditions), but there is still some wrangling within the Iranian government over the execution of the deal. Under the terms of the deal, Iran must also convert one of its nuclear facilities into a light-water reactor (less useful for the creation of materials that could be used in a nuclear weapon), and it must make a series of disclosures about the nature of its nuclear activities. After the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verifies that Iran has fulfilled its responsibilities under the deal, the comprehensive economic sanctions against Iran will be lifted.

I have been thinking a lot about how this case will be viewed by scholars of economic sanctions. Will we think of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as a case in which economic sanctions were successful? How would we know?

The term “economic sanctions” can refer to a wide range of punitive measures, and can include the freezing of a foreign leader’s assets, penalties imposed on a country’s financial system, banning the export of luxury goods to a country (a tactic we’ve tried with North Korea), and more comprehensive measures designed to stop the flow of goods into or out of a country. Different types of sanctions are supposed to work in different ways. For example, sanctions imposed against an enemy leader are intended to punish that leader or force him/her to change his/her behavior; the logic behind more comprehensive measures is that a population forced to suffer under heavy trade sanctions will pressure their government to change policies or perhaps overthrow the sitting regime. The United States currently has economic sanctions of some type in place against dozens of countries and non-state actors (like criminal organizations). The Department of the Treasury maintains a list of current sanctions here, if you would like to take a look.

Measuring the effectiveness of economic sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy is actually quite difficult. It can be relatively easy to measure the direct impact of sanctions—say, how much oil we are preventing a country from selling in a given month or year—but it is much, much harder to determine the extent to which sanctions influence the political behavior of other states. Just because the United States imposes sanctions and then the targeted state subsequently changes its behavior, this does not necessarily mean that the sanctions caused the change in behavior. It is just as possible that the change was due to domestic political factors in the targeted country, for example.

The best and most comprehensive study[1] on economic sanctions of which I am aware estimates that sanctions are effective—meaning they had some impact on the desired change in target behavior—in roughly one third of cases in which they are applied (and in some of these cases, additional instruments were also used against the target state). Sanctions tend to work best when the sanctioner makes relatively modest demands and when many countries cooperate to target the sanctioned country.

I don’t know how the Iran case will be recorded, and I think it’s far too early to make a confident assessment. First, we would have to agree about the purpose of the sanctions to assess whether they have been effective or not—were the sanctions intended to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons indefinitely, or were they designed to compel Iran to reach an agreement with the international community about its nuclear program? In the case of the first goal, we will be waiting forever to determine whether the sanctions worked (or at least until such a point when we could confidently declare that they had failed). In the case of the latter, we will need time to assess how the sanctions influenced the thinking of Iran’s top decision makers. That information may be very difficult to obtain. Leaders often have an incentive to publicly claim that sanctions (or other coercive instruments) did not affect their calculations, lest they appear weak to domestic or international rivals. We will have to wait and see, but if we do find out that the sanctions played a role in Iran’s decision to reach the agreement this summer, then I think this case is likely to be cited as a significant success for economic sanctions.

[1] Gary Hufbauer et al., Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd Edition (Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2009).