WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is adopting a new policy limiting the circumstances under which the U.S. would use nuclear weapons, keeping with the president’s pledge to give the nuclear arsenal a less prominent role in U.S. defense strategy.
The nuclear weapons policy review to be released today is the first since 2001. It would not radically change U.S. policy, but officials said it will include language that reflects President Barack Obama’s commitment to move toward a nuclear free world. By narrowing the conditions in which the U.S. might use nuclear arms, Obama hopes to strengthen U.S. arguments that other countries should either reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons or forgo developing them.
These officials said the administration’s new nuclear policy would stop short of renouncing the use of nuclear weapons except in retaliation to atomic attack, as some activists have advocated. But it would describe the weapons’ purpose as “primarily” or “fundamentally” to deter or respond to a nuclear attack.
That wording would rule out the use of such weapons to respond to an attack by conventional, biological or chemical weapons. Previous U.S. policy was more ambiguous.
In an interview with the New York Times on Monday, Obama said his administration was explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons. Those threats, he told the newspaper, could be deterred with “a series of graded options” – a combination of old and newly designed conventional weapons.
On Monday evening the White House provided a brief outline of the new nuclear policy, which it said reflects a commitment to renew arms control and work with Russia to reduce nuclear forces while maintaining a stable military balance. It said substantial new U.S. investments in the weapons laboratories and other technological undergirdings of the nuclear arsenal will “facilitate further nuclear reductions,” and extend the life of warheads currently in the nuclear force.
“This is an alternative to developing new nuclear weapons, which we reject,” the White House statement said.
The Obama administration plans to urge Russia to return to the bargaining table following Senate ratification of the new START arms reduction treaty, to be signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague on Thursday. The White House wants Russia to adopt first-ever limits on shorter-range, less powerful nuclear weapons, an arena in which Russia holds an advantage, the officials said.
The Russian parliament is almost certain to sign off on any deal negotiated by the Kremlin, but the U.S. Senate’s ratification of the new START treaty is far from a sure thing.