Expanding Nuclear Options: Is the U.S. Negating Its Non-Use Pledges?

By Bunn, George | Arms Control Today, May/June 1996 | Go to article overview

Expanding Nuclear Options: Is the U.S. Negating Its Non-Use Pledges?


Bunn, George, Arms Control Today


On April 11, 1996, following the signing by 43 African countries of the African Nuclear-WeaponFree-Zone (ANWFZ) Treaty in Cairo, the United States signed a protocol to the treaty pledging not to use or threaten to use a nuclear explosive device against any treaty party. (See ACT, April 1996.) At a special White House briefing that same day, Robert Bell, special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and arms control at the National Security Council (NSC), undercut the intent and clear meaning of the protocol by stating that it "will not limit options available to the United States in response to an attack by la treaty] party using weapons of mass destruction."1

Bell's statement, which went largely unnoticed at the time it was made, appears to have been prompted by U.S. concerns about clandestine efforts of some developing countries to acquire biological and chemical weapons. In particular, Libya's efforts to build what U.S. intelligence officials believe to be an underground nerve gas factory have been widely reported in the press and the focus of an intense round of "preventive" diplomacy by the United States and Egypt. (See p. 26.)

The statement by Bell, one of the administration's most senior arms control policy-makers, adds a significant new exception-for biological or chemical weapon attacks-to long-standing U.S. "negative security assurances" regarding the non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states. U.S. non-use assurances to such states that became parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), first enunciated in 1978, were designed to affirm that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against them.

Such an exception to the 18-year-old pledge on non-use is inconsistent with the no-first-use commitment made in April 1995 by President Bill Clinton-itself a restatement of the 1978 pledge-to over 170 non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT to secure their support for making the treaty permanent. Moreover, Bell's statement is at odds with U.S. promises made to over 100 countries currently or soon-to-be party to several nuclear-weapon-free-zone (NWFZ) treaties that were meant to further limit U.S. nuclear options.

Although the Clinton administration has since neither publicly confirmed nor denied that this new exception for biological or chemical weapon attacks is in fact a change in U.S. commitments, Bell's statement highlights the difficulty facing the administration in reconciling those commitments with the Pentagon's continuing push to keep open military options for employing nuclear weapons. Clearly, the 1978 and 1995 declarations do not permit a preemptive U.S. nuclear strike against Libya to destroy the suspect facility. While the Clinton administration does not argue that such a strike is permissible, Bell's statement makes clear that the United States claims the option of using nuclear weapons if Libya attacks U.S. forces with chemical weapons. This policy was, in fact, implied by Defense Secretary William Perry in his March 28 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during hearings on the Chemical Weapons Convention.2

As a result of the current confusion, both U.S. credibility as a reliable treaty partner and the U.S. leadership role in the nonproliferation regime may be seriously undermined. In addition, an important new role for nuclear weapons has been created at a time when the United States should be de-emphasizing them.

Non-Use Promises Under the NPT

The United States first extended negative security assurances on June 12, 1978, when Secretary of State Cyrus Vance presented President Jimmy Carter's declaration to the UN Special Session on Disarmament. Under the Carter assurances formally enunciated by Vance:

The United States will not use nuclear weapons against any nonnuclear-weapons state party to the NPT or any comparable internationally binding commitment not to acquire nuclear explosive devices, except in the case of an attack on the United States, its territories or armed forces, or its allies, by such a state allied to a nuclear-weapons state or associated with a nuclear-weapons state in carrying out or sustaining the attack. …

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