Putting Warren’s nuclear pledge in context

Adam Pontius
10 min readAug 2, 2019
Governor Steve Bullock of Montana and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts sparred on nuclear policy at the CNN Democratic primary debate on Tuesday. Image credit: 27f8c42b-5508–41e1-a8c7–393be4d3de70.jpeg

Who would have thought that the terribly moderated CNN Democratic primary debates might actually result in substantive political dialogue on the issue of nuclear strategy? It certainly surprised me. Towards the end of an otherwise domestic and social issue heavy debate, CNN moderator Jake Tapper precipitated the following dialogue between Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Montana Governor Steve Bullock highlighting and discussing Warren’s pledge to reject the option of a first-use nuclear strike in any circumstance:

[I edited out a lot of the interjections from Tapper and Lemon. The four digit codes are time signatures from the video.]

Jake Tapper: 19:48 Senator Warren, you want to make it US policy that the US will never use a nuclear weapon unless another country uses one first. Now, President Obama reportedly considered that policy, but ultimately decided against it. Why should the US tie its own hands with that policy?

Elizabeth W: [20:07] Because it makes the world safer. The United States is not going to use nuclear weapons preemptively, and we need to say so to the entire world. It reduces the likelihood that someone miscalculate, someone misunderstands. [20:24] Our first responsibility is to keep ourselves safe, and what’s happening right now with Donald Trump as they keep expanding the different ways that we have nuclear weapons, the different ways that they can be used, puts us all at risk. [20:39]You know, we talk about what’s happening around the world. I have three older brothers who served in the military. I see that they would do anything. Our military is the best on earth, but we should not be asking our military to take on jobs that do not have a military solution. We need to use our diplomatic tools, our economic tools, and if we’re going to send someone into war, we better have a plan for how we’re going to get them out on the other end.

Jake Tapper:[21:08]Thank you, Senator. Governor Bullock, your response to Senator Warren’s proposal to the US never use a nuclear weapon first?

Steve Bullock:[21:15] I wouldn’t want to take that off the table. I think America’s strength, we have to be able to say that.[21:20] Look, never, I hope certainly in my term or anyone else, would we really even get close to pulling that trigger, but by the same token, America’s strength… And look, this president’s made American first is America alone. Our allies no longer trust us. Our adversaries are with us. But going from a position of strength, we should be negotiating down so there aren’t nuclear weapons, but drawing those lines in sand at this point I wouldn’t do.

Jake Tapper: [21:52]Thank you, Governor. Senator Warren, your response.

Elizabeth W: [21:53] We don’t expand trust around the world by saying, “No, we might be the first ones to use a nuclear weapon.” That puts the entire world at risk and puts us at risk right in the middle of this. At a time when Donald Trump is pulling out of our nuclear negotiations, expanding the opportunities for nuclear proliferation around the world, has pulled us out of the deal in Iran, and Iran is now working on its nuclear weapon, the world gets closer and closer to nuclear warfare. [22:27] We have to have announced policy that is one the entire world can live with. We need to make that clear. We will respond if someone else does, but not first.

Don Lemon: [22:38] Governor Bullock, please respond.

Steve Bullock: [22:40] Part I agree with, but by the [inaudible 00:22:43], like we need to get back to nuclear proliferation. [22:46] But when you have folks… Deproliferation, reducing that. But at the same time, when you actually have Korea, when you have others, I don’t want to turn around and say, “Well, Detroit has to be gone before we would ever use that” when so many crazy folks are getting closer to having nuclear weapon. I don’t want them to think, “I could strike this country” and I and we as the United States of America wouldn’t do a thing. Part of the strength really is the ability to deter.

Warren’s no first-use pledge is a significant deviation from both current and past U.S. policy. As Tapper mentioned in his prompt, the Obama administration considered a no-first use policy but ultimately decided against the measure. The Trump administration has unsurprisingly taken an even more aggressive stance on the issue:

Clip snagged from Jame Acton’s fantastic thread on the subject, which I discuss later.

While I’m not generally sympathetic to many of Warren’s domestic policies, I’ve been consistently impressed with her depth on foreign policy issues as well as the prolific pace of her policy papers on the subject. Warren’s answer on first-use is no different, and while I don’t entirely agree with the policy, advances discussion on the issue in an important way. Bullock’s responses were lacking in comparison and his critique unconvincing, as I will get to in a bit. That being said, he has next to no previous foreign policy experience and is in the beginning stages of his campaign. Given that context, his fumbling of the issue is forgivable, and I think that his response to Warren was more likely an attempt to increase his speaking time and visibility rather than a substantive critique.

While a no-first use pledge may sound like a no-brainer solution, I think its worth unpacking some of the history around why the United States historically has not adopted a first use policy. Nuclear weapons, and the deterrent effect that they have on possible U.S. rivals, have long been considered an important component of American foreign policy and grand strategy. Indeed, there was a time at the beginning of the Cold War where the concept of first use was integral to U.S. grand strategy. While we are used to the United States being the both the pre-dominant conventional military and nuclear power in the world this was not always the case. Following the Cold War the Soviet Union maintained what many in the United States considered to be a significant edge in conventional capabilities in Europe. This perceived gap in capabilities was further compounded by assumptions that communist countries would act as a bloc in solidarity with the Soviet Union, as communist parties across Europe had done in the 1930s leading up to the Second World War.

The Truman and Eisenhower administrations confronted the problem of the Soviet conventional edge in different ways. The Truman administration developed a conventional containment strategy to focused on building up the capabilities of U.S. allies, forward deploying U.S. forces in strategic areas, and holding the line in the Korean War against the communists. While the Truman administration certainly remained aware of the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, as they had demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons did not play a major part in their containment strategy.

The Eisenhower administration continued many of the Truman administration’s policies on containment, but viewed the overall strategic posture of the United States as unsustainable. Containment through conventional means at a scale that might deter or hold the line against the Soviet Union and the communist world simply did not align with Eisenhower’s vision of a sustainable American budgetary and defense policy. The Eisenhower administration would capitalize on the U.S. advantage as the pre-eminent nuclear power to affect containment of both the communist world and its policy’s cost in American wealth. Eisenhower developed the “New Look” strategy, which depended in part on a doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation in response to any communist transgression. Under the Eisenhower administration, the United States would greatly expand both the variety and quantity of its nuclear weapons. Instead of relying on forward deployed American conventional forces, the U.S. under Eisenhower would depend on a fleet of Intercontinental Jet Bombers that would launch from the United States.

While Eisenhower’s New Look strategy likely did reign in costs, it also had a number of disadvantages. The doctrine of massive retaliation’s deterence value depended almost entirely on Eisenhower’s ability to demonstrate resolve and clearly delineate the American interests which he viewed as worth of a nuclear response. The policy would eventually result in the United States forward deploying American ground forces as a symbol of U.S. commitment to European allies, and the adoption of short range tactical nuclear weapons. The strategy constrained the United State’s ability to respond to crises, and its full implementation depended on the assumption that in the event of a Soviet attack the United States would be able to wipe out its opponent quickly. As Henry Kissinger noted in his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, you could only assume that limited nuclear war would be possible if rules were agreed to ahead of time.

The Kennedy administration would end up abandoning the New Look strategy of the Eisenhower administration in favor of a more flexible and aggressive approach to containment. While the United States would never again return to the idea of using nuclear weapons as its sole deterrent against both conventional and nuclear attack, the concept of first use would remain an important part of American strategy. American strategy on Europe in the 1970s even envisioned scenarios where limited tactical nuclear weapons might be used to halt a conventional Soviet offensive into Europe. Even today, the Trump administration reserves its ability to resort to first use in the event of a non-nuclear attack that wipes out our ability to command and control our nuclear weapons, or disables our early warning systems. The Trump administration’s strategy also reserves the right to resort to nuclear weapons if another country launches a comparable strategic attack against the United States (think a cyber-attack initiated massive black out or a biological weapons attack). Of course in all of these circumstances attribution is remarkably problematic. There is no guarantee that we would know who hit us, with what, or why if enough systems were knocked off line. As James Acton, nuclear policy expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues in one of his articles at War on the Rocks, threatening a nuclear response against China or Russia for knocking out satellites seems like an unnecessary escalation and definitely constitutes a disproportionate response.

Putting aside the predictably inadequate aspects of the Trump administration’s current policy, adopting a no first use policy may swing the pendulum too far back in the opposite direction. The Trump administration’s current policy is in part precipitated by the proliferation of strategic threats beyond nuclear weapons. While explicitly threatening the use of nuclear weapons against these threats is unnecessary and likely not conducive to healthy relationships with Moscow and Beijing, an unspoken threat of nuclear retaliation may be a useful thing in and of itself. There is also always the remote possibility that the United States would need to resort to nuclear weapons to deal with a conventional existential threat, as James Acton discussed in his thread on Warren’s no first use pledge:

It is unlikely that China or Russia would join us in a no first use pledge. Both countries view the threat of a nuclear response as an important deterrent and balance against U.S. conventional superiority, just as the U.S. did against the Soviet Union during the beginning of the Cold War. Nor are other nuclear powers outside of Europe likely to follow the United State’s lead on a no first use pledge. North Korea has developed its nuclear program at great cost as a general deterrent against aggression, so too with Israel. India and Pakistan’s mutual distrust is too high for either country to limit their strategic options.

While I have sympathy for Warren’s position in as much as it is a much needed course correction from the Trump administration’s policy, I am more comfortable with Acton’s position. I also like Jeffrey Lewis and Scott Sagan’s suggestion in a 2016 article for Daedalus of a “principle of necessity” that would commit the United States to not using a nuclear weapon if the same aim can be achieved through the use of a conventional weapon with a strong probability of success. This proposal addresses Gov. Steve Bullocks purported concern over the ability of the United States to halt further proliferation of nuclear weapons, while also signaling restraint and a commitment to proportionality. Considering that many conventional weapons already equal the destructive potential of tactical nuclear weapons without the potential for collateral damage caused by radiation (read: lots of dead innocent people), the proposal is also eminently workable.

Ultimately I’m glad though that Warren is bringing new policy to the table. While there is a healthy and robust dialogue on nuclear policy in the think tank and academic communities, political dialogue on nuclear issues has been neglected for too long. What little dialogue there is has been sclerotic, stilted, and unhealthy. I hope that moderators continue to ask candidates about their stances on Warren’s policy (maybe we can even get some productive discourse on other foreign policy topics as well given that it is the primary responsibility of the president). Few other issues have such a direct bearing on the existential health of Americans, as Jeffrey Lewis hauntingly highlighted in his recent book The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel (if this book isn’t on your reading list already, it should be). I want to see more debate on nuclear strategy, even if I don’t agree with its results.



Adam Pontius

Writer on international politics. Occasional political consultant. Travel, history, and food. Misc and random pieces filed here. Twitter: @AdamMPontius