The United States will reduce the role assigned to nuclear weapons in its national security strategy, the New York Times reports (David E. Sanger & Peter Baker, “Obama Limits When U.S. Would Use Nuclear Arms,” New York Times, 5 April 2010). The Obama administration’s much-delayed Nuclear Posture Review is to be formally released on Tuesday, but President Obama provided details of the new policy to the newspaper ahead of time.
The policy renounces the development of any new nuclear weapons by the United States. It also explicitly commits the U.S. not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and are in compliance with its provisions, even if such a state were to attack the U.S. or its allies with chemical or biological weapons. (The U.S. has maintained intentional ambiguity on this possibility in the past.) The policy also rules out nuclear retaliation against non-nuclear states for a “crippling cyberattack”.
In addition, the new policy declares that “the fundamental role” of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States or its allies and partners. However, it does not go as far as to state that deterrence of a nuclear attack is the “sole role” of U.S. nuclear weapons or that the U.S. would never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict with a nuclear-armed country.
The future of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe apparently remains unresolved in the document. President Obama told the New York Times, however, that the U.S. would “pursue opportunities for further reductions in our nuclear posture, working in tandem with Russia but also working in tandem with NATO as a whole.” Several NATO members have expressed their desire to eliminate the European-based weapons. (Canada, by contrast, has been silent on the issue, and a recent report by retired Canadian officials and the DND lobby managed to spend more than 40 pages discussing the future of the alliance without making a single reference to future nuclear weapons policy.) Obama also told the paper, however, that he “wanted to consult with NATO allies before making such a commitment.”
It is likely that the U.S. will in fact remove the weapons. But it will almost certainly wait for a formal NATO decision approving their removal before announcing the decision.