Text Only | Disarmament Diplomacy | Disarmament Documentation | ACRONYM Reports
back to the acronym home page
WMD Possessors
About Acronym
Disarmament Diplomacy, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 66, September 2002

News Review

US Shift to Pre-Emption Raises Nuclear Fears

The Bush administration is working to finalise a National Security Strategy for submission to Congress by early fall. The document - billed as the first such official statement of national security policy in US history - is being prepared for the President by the National Security Council (NSC), under the direction of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, in consultation with a wide range of federal agencies. According to innumerable reports and comments from administration officials, the centrepiece of the strategy is set to be a formalisation of America's unabashed post-9/11 preparedness to 'strike first' against terrorists, states harbouring terrorists, and/or states seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

The basic rationale behind the emerging strategy was set out concisely by Vice President Dick Cheney in a June 10 speech to the Democratic Union Conference in Washington: "During the Cold War we were able to manage the threats with arms control agreements and a policy of deterrence. ... We [now] have enemies with nothing to defend. A group like al Qaeda cannot be deterred or placated or reasoned with at a conference table. For that reason, this struggle will not end with a treaty or accommodation... Grave threats are accumulating around us, and inaction will only bring them closer. We will not wait until it is too late."

On June 17, Condoleezza Rice commented on the outlines of the new approach, candidly geared to a state of permanent war against threats to US interests. "It really means," she stressed, "early action of some kind. It means forestalling certain destructive acts against you by an adversary. ... [There are circumstances in which] you can't wait to be attacked to respond." Rice added that discussions on the new strategy "didn't take long...to gel [after] looking at the growing dangers of weapons of mass destruction, at how the terrorists' networks operate."

The same day, Joseph Biden, Democratic Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked one of many practical policy questions begged by a stance that might crudely be summarised as 'diplomacy where possible, pre-emption when necessary': "Constitutionally, the President has the right to act pre-emptively. The hard question is how to judge whether a country with nuclear or biological weapons has the intent to use them. For example, the Chinese have a capacity. Does the President have the right to pre-emptively go strike the Chinese, the Communist regime? The answer's no."

Equally problematic is the level of pre-emptive action to be deemed legitimate in the face of a perceived threat. Are there, for example, circumstances in which striking first with non-conventional weapons should be contemplated? Should 'low-yield' nuclear weapons be developed, capable of destroying hardened underground WMD facilities and command centres? As reported in recent issues, the Defense Department, while not currently developing such weapons, is keen not to rule the option out. According to a July 17 report from the Associated Press, the Pentagon is also actively investigating other options, such as a warhead capable of releasing immobilising foam or dispersing flammable material. As with the options for low-yield nuclear weapons, these ideas are still in the early, 'drawing board' stage. Much of the research is being carried out by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). On June 10, DTRA Director Stephen Younger told the Washington Post: "There was a time during which we didn't really know what phase we were in, so we called it the 'post-Cold War phase'... And it wasn't clear what kind of weapons we were going to need for the conflicts of the future. September 11 clarified that. And we are getting a better understanding of the types [of threat and target] we may face in the future and the types of weaponry that will be required... We want to use the minimum force to achieve the military objective, if at all possible with a conventional weapon. We do not want to cross the nuclear threshold unless it is an example of extreme national emergency." Younger added, however, that some underground, hardened targets were likely to be "so incredibly hard" that not even future low-yield nuclear weapons - themselves, as he conceded, capable of leading to radioactive contamination - would suffice to destroy them, meaning that "they do require high-yield nuclear weapons". The same day, Democratic Senator Carl Levin, Chair of the Armed Services Committee, warned: "We should not be talking about first use of nuclear weapons. The theoretical situation where that might be indicated in some incredibly theoretical moment is so far outweighed by the shift in doctrine to first use that it should not, in my judgment, be part of our doctrine".

International reaction to the apparently radical doctrinal shift in US national security policy has been generally muted, presumably in anticipation of the release of the fully-fledged strategy in a few months. Among the more striking exceptions to this rule, Philippines' Vice President Teofisto Guingona stated on August 8: "The main premise of a strike-first policy is to make the world a safer place, but many fear it could only generate the opposite and breed animosities worse than that between the Israelites and the Palestinians.' Referring to the Kashmir crisis, Guingona observed: "The United States has mediated between the parties to negotiate. But what example will the US give were she to pursue the pre-emptive strike policy? Would this not negate negotiations and inflame the two nations into open conflict with nuclear consequences?" Guingona, who resigned as foreign minister in July in protest at Prime Minister Gloria Arroyo's support for a continued US military presence in the Philippines, concluded: "When will it end? When all terrorists are gone? Who will decide? ... Let us fight terror in all its ugly forms - but let us do so with reason, for the good of all, especially innocent civilians, women and children who often get caught in the crossfire."

On June 18, Australia emerged as one of the few overt supporters of a 'strike-first' stance. According to Defence Minister Robert Hill, addressing senior military officials at the National Defence College in Canberra: "The need to act swiftly and firmly before threats become attacks is perhaps the clearest lesson of September 11, and one that is clearly driving US policy and strategy. It is a position which we share, in principle."

Notes: on June 21, CBS television released details of a poll on nuclear weapons issues conducted over the previous two days. Asked 'Do you think the United States would ever be justified in using a nuclear weapon first against another country?', 25% of the 892 respondents answered 'yes' and 65% 'no'. In other findings, 55% of respondents thought the risk of nuclear war had increased in "the last few years", 65% thought terrorist use of a "nuclear device" more likely than use by a state, and 73% trusted President Bush "to make the right kind of decisions about the use of nuclear weapons".

On June 16, the Observer newspaper claimed that the UK government had drawn up a "secret plan" to prepare for the production of new nuclear weapons at its Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Aldermaston, Berkshire. On June 18, the Guardian reported that a £2 billion overhaul of the Aldermaston site was underway. The upgrades are presented by the government as routine and prudent, and not indicative of any decision to produce new warheads, either as eventual replacements for the country's Trident system or as an echo of the US interest in developing 'mini-nukes' for use against terrorists or proliferant states. On June 17, Defence Minister Dr. Lewis Moonie told the House of Commons: "Work going on in Aldermaston is no secret and is in order to maintain the reliability of our nuclear deterrent faced with the fact that we no longer test these weapons. ... [O]ur deterrent is reliable and capable of being deployed. That involves a great deal of careful work to ensure there is no chance of us going back to physically testing the weapons." However, speaking to the BBC on June 16, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Menzies Campbell said he suspected a much wider agenda: "Whether or not to replace Trident will be one of the most significant political decisions of the next 20 years. ... We cannot have any repeat of the precedent set by Labour in the 1970s when Polaris was updated without the Cabinet being fully informed." Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, told the Observer (June 16) that the Aldermaston overhaul suggests that, "at the very least, they want to build the infrastructure to create a new generation of weapons. It is clear that the government is committing itself to a long-term nuclear future after Trident. This suggests a nuclear-free world more in theory than in practice." Such concerns mix with fears that UK nuclear doctrine is shifting with Washington's towards a strike-first posture. As Dr. Stephen Pullinger, Executive Director of the International Security Information Service (ISIS) in London, told the Guardian (June 18), emerging British policy "apparently allows for the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons to prevent what we perceive to be a threat from chemical and biological weapons."

Reports: Bush warns of 'catastrophic power' in terror war, Reuters, June 10; Bush plans new 'strike first' policy, Associated Press, June 10; Bush developing military policy of striking first, Washington Post, June 10; US prepares new 'strike first' strategy, Reuters, June 10; Secret plan for N-bomb factory, The Observer, June 16; Government 'plans new nuclear arms', BBC News Online, June 16; Canberra indicates support for US pre-emptive strikes, Associated Press, June 18; Bush to formalize a defense policy of hitting first, New York Times, July 17; MoD plans £2 billion nuclear expansion, The Guardian, June 18; Canberra indicates support for US pre-emptive strikes, Associated Press, June 18; Polling on nuclear weapons questions, CBS news poll, released June 21; Pentagon considering new non-explosive device for use against buried chemical or biological weapons, Associated Press, July 17; Philippine VP criticizes US strike-first stance, Reuters, August 8.

Back to the Top of the Page

© 2002 The Acronym Institute.