More Than Words: The Value of U.S. Non-Nuclear-Use Promises

By Bunn, George; Preez, Jean du | Arms Control Today, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

More Than Words: The Value of U.S. Non-Nuclear-Use Promises


Bunn, George, Preez, Jean du, Arms Control Today


Last year, for the first time, the United States voted in the UN General Assembly against a traditional resolution calling for negotiation of legally binding negative security assurances (NSAs) by nuclear-weapon states. These are promises not to use nuclear weapons against nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) states-parties that have promised not to acquire them. In the debate, the U.S. delegation explained that the United States "opposes a treaty on negative security assurances or any other binding instrument on security assurances."1

U.S. military officials have long opposed explicit promises not to use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them. Prior to the current administration, however, the U.S. government had rarely been so clear in stating its opposition. This new position is contrary to U.S. national interests.

U.S. superiority in conventional weapons and the advent of precision-guided munitions means that the United States does not need to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons to achieve its military goals effectively, even against those states that possess chemical or biological weapons. Indeed, the United States needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons only in response to an attack with nuclear weapons. Moreover, the U.S. refusal to endorse NSAs only encourages additional countries, including U.S. enemies, to acquire nuclear weapons.

Cold War Origins

A debate over NSAs began in the 1960s during the negotiation of the NPT. The nations that were being asked in the NPT to forgo pursuit of nuclear weapons wanted assurances that they would not be attacked with nuclear weapons if they gave up the option of having them. Developing countries that belong to the 115-member Nonaligned Movement (NAM) urged that the NPT contain a promise by NPT members having nuclear weapons (China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States) not to use them against members that did not have them. In the United States, secret nuclear war plans probably did not target countries that did not have nuclear weapons, except perhaps for a few that had governments closely aligned with the Soviet Union or China. Nonetheless, the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed such restrictions on their use of nuclear weapons, and the U.S. delegation to the NPT negotiations was not authorized to agree to any.2

Following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the revelation that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear weapons with its troops on Cuban soil, several Latin American countries, spearheaded by Mexico and Brazil, successfully negotiated the Latin American and Caribbean Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, known also as the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Given the U.S. strategic interest in keeping Latin America free of nuclear weapons, Washington supported the treaty. On the insistence of the Latin American governments advocating the treaty, the United States eventually ratified a protocol to the treaty committing itself "not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against contracting states," i.e., the parties to the Latin American treaty, none of which had nuclear weapons.3

But, the United States, fearing a Soviet-assisted attack from the Latin American region, qualified its treaty nonuse promise by stating that it would consider an armed attack (not necessarily a nuclear attack) by a Latin American treaty party that was assisted by a nation that had nuclear weapons to be incompatible with the Latin American party's obligations under the treaty. This implied that, in the event of such an assisted attack, the United States could use nuclear weapons to reply even if no nuclear weapons had been used by the attacker.

Although not as unqualified as some Latin Americans had desired, the U.S. promise not to use nuclear weapons against Latin American countries gave the non-aligned states in other parts of the world incentives to seek nuclear nonuse commitments from the nuclear-weapon states, as the Latin Americans had done. …

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