Sole Purpose: A Policy Without a Purpose

Sole Purpose: A Policy Without a Purpose
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, file
Sole Purpose: A Policy Without a Purpose
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, file
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Ambassador Steve Pifer, a former colleague in government and now a research fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, has just written an article (The National Interest Online, September 15, 2020) supporting the idea of dropping the longstanding U.S. deterrence policy that we might, under grave circumstances, actually use nuclear weapons first1.  Instead, Pifer and others support a policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons (known colloquially as “NFU”) styled as “Sole Purpose”.2    Pifer writes that adopting “Sole Purpose” is necessary because the existing 60 year-old U.S. and NATO policy are no longer credible to either our friends or our potential enemies and that U.S. pledge not to use nuclear weapons first in extremis will reduce global tensions, particularly with Russia and China.   But Pifer's argument ignores recent engagements with U.S. allies and also commits the most fundamental mistake of deterrence:  he substitutes his own notion of what makes a threat credible to Putin and Xi Jinping for their judgment, thereby falling into the classic and oft-warned- about the trap of "mirror imaging."

To set the stage, it is important to understand how the current policy evolved.  A U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons to defend NATO Europe in the event of a Soviet conventional attack was designed to raise the cost of aggression to unacceptable levels:  the Soviet leadership could not be certain that such an attack would not set off a nuclear holocaust.  The very idea of another conventional war being fought on their devastated territories was unthinkable to America's European allies in the 1950s; indeed, the thought of a new conventional war being fought on NATO territory today is similarly unthinkable to allied populations.  If the goal, therefore, is to prevent conventional attack, the idea of a conventional only deterrent to Russian conventional aggression fails the test of history and logic.  Conventional deterrence of a determined aggressor has generally failed throughout history.  The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, speaking of the many memorials in Europe to the dead of World War 1, called them “monuments to the failure of conventional deterrence."

Moreover, Pifer misunderstands the very nature of the current “First Use” threat when he writes that it:  “might have contributed to the deterrence of a conventional conflict, but such escalation would have entailed enormous risks: once the nuclear threshold was crossed, where would matters stop? Many analysts question the ability to control escalation once nuclear weapons enter into use".  The whole point of the threat of nuclear escalation is that no one knows where it would end, and potential enemy leaders, in deciding whether or not to attack, must question whether what they seek to gain through aggression is worth the potential destruction of their homelands.   Pifer compounds this why postulating two scenarios in which conventional aggression has already occurred (by Russia in one case, by China in the other) and then asking whether a U.S. nuclear response is credible – to which he answers "no."  There are two mistakes here:  first, he allows that deterrence has failed in the first place, and second he substitutes his own judgment of what is credible for that of Presidents-for-life Putin or Xi Jinping.  In so doing, he is guilty of “mirror imaging” and of ignoring the fact that Moscow and Beijing view nuclear weapons and nuclear use quite differently than Western leaders do.

Finally, Pifer suggests that if the U.S. were to adopt an NFU/Sole Purpose policy, this would "defuse the current situation in which both Washington and Moscow believe that the other seeks to lower the nuclear threshold" and also "open the path to a new security dialogue with Beijing".3 

But these assertions do not stand scrutiny.  As I have testified previously4, abandoning our current policy will reduce allied confidence in the U.S. pledge to defend them, potentially undercut U.S. nonproliferation objectives, and will have no effect on policies or perceptions in either Moscow or Beijing.  Let's examine each in turn.

Pifer asserts that U.S. allies no longer find the current policy credible.  The last time the question of moving to NFU was examined occurred in the summer of 2016; allied protests against changing the longstanding policy were vociferous.  As reported in Fred Kaplan’s “The Bomb” (a work with which Pifer is familiar since he quoted from it in his article), the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers weighed in strongly against moving to no first use.Equally, although not reported by Kaplan, London and Paris protested at very senior levels against changing existing policy, as did NATO Headquarters.  At the NSC considering the proposed policy change, the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy argued successfully against walking away from the longstanding policy.  Given this, and, more pointedly, the tumultuous relationship between Washington and its NATO allies over the past four years, a move to NFU/Sole Purpose would be seen as additional evidence that the United States was stepping away from its pledge to defend the Alliance.

Suppose allies come to believe the United States nuclear deterrent no longer protects them against conventional attack. In that case, it is not inconceivable one or more who already possess the nuclear material and technical expertise to build their own national deterrents might do so.  Proposals have surfaced in the bodies politic in both Japan and Germany to pursue an independent deterrent over the past decade as fears grew that the U.S. nuclear umbrella "had holes".6  Developments along these lines would represent a huge setback both for U.S. nonproliferation policy and for the Nonproliferation Treaty.   Furthermore, Beijing’s reaction to a potential Japanese nuclear weapons program would be a cause of great concern for peace and stability, as would Moscow’s reaction to a potential German program.

The notion that either Moscow or Beijing or both would be reassured by a U.S. move to an NFU/Sole Purpose policy is risible.  Given their strong conspiratorial outlook, neither leadership would believe that an announced policy shift would be translated into operational policy.  Some context here is important.  From 1977 until its demise, the Soviet Union had a declaratory policy that it would never be the first nation post-1945 to use a nuclear weapon.  As the Warsaw Pact crumbled and Germany reunited in late 1990, West German forces obtained the Pact's warplans (which were written by the Soviet General Staff); the plans contained clear nuclear first use options.  And while China’s current declaratory policy is “no first use” policy, analysts and U.S. Government officials have discerned multiple ambiguities which suggest there are, in fact, circumstances in which Beijing would use nuclear weapons first.7 

Lastly, the suggestion that a U.S. shift to NFU/Sole Purpose will lead to Moscow and Beijing's adoption of similar policies (operational as opposed to solely declaratory) suggests a strong degree of cultural arrogance.  The nuclear policies of Russia and China (and, to the degree one exists. of North Korea) are formulated based on their respective leadership's view of the threats they face and the opportunities they seek to exploit.  They will never seek to emulate American policy.  To think that this is true is to over-value our own importance regarding setting global standards and denigrate these governments' ability to determine their policies based on their own goals and objectives (however much we might disagree with those goals and objectives).

Pifer closes his piece by noting, accurately, that there has been a "taboo" against using nuclear weapons operationally since 1945.  But that is only a part of the story.  The important taboo is that no major power has committed aggression against another major power.  That historical aberration is a direct result of the danger of escalation to nuclear war.  That is the reason for the current policy.  Changing that policy to "NFU/Sole Purpose" has no positive national security value for the United States and our allies and carries within it serious risks to alliance cohesion, nonproliferation, and unsubstantiated assumptions about potential enemy nuclear weapons policy.

 Sadly, with a "Sole Purpose" clause having been included in the Democratic Party platform, there is a risk this will become a partisan political issue.  That would be extremely unfortunate.  The current policy has been endorsed equally by Democratic and Republican Administrations for over seven decades.  The over-riding need to prevent aggression against ourselves or our allies is too important to become an "R vs. D" question.   

Franklin C. Miller served for over decades as a senior policy official in the Department of Defense and on the NSC staff. 


  1. Steven Pifer, “Nuclear Weapons: It’s Time for Sole Purpose”, National Interest Online, September 15, 2020
  2. “the “sole purpose” of U.S. nuclear weapons should be to deter and—if necessary, retaliate against—a nuclear attack”; Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Franklin C. Miller, “Outside Perspectives on Nuclear Deterrence Policy and Posture”, Prepared Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, March 6, 2019
  5. Fred Kaplan, The Bomb (Simon and Schuster, New York,) Spring 2020. 253-254.
  6. See, for example:; Mark Fitzpatrick, “How Japan Could Go Nuclear:  It Has the Smarts and the Resources, but Does Tokyo Have the Will?”, Foreign Affairs, October 3, 2019; Heather Hurlburt, ‘“Having Decided It Can’t Rely On America, Germany Debates Acquiring Its Own Nuclear Weapons”, International Politics, August. 17, 2018.
  7. See for example: U.S. Department of Defense, “Military and Security Developments involving the PRC”, Annual Report to the Congress 2020; Peter Pry, “China's 'no first use' nuclear fiction”, The Hill, June 24, 2020; Nan Li, China’s Evolving Nuclear Strategy: Will China Drop “No First Use?”, Jamestown Foundation Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 1, January 17, 2018; Dan Satherley, “China Military Moving Away From ‘No First Use’ Nuke Policy- U.S. commander's stark warning”, Newshub, September 16, 2020


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