The Road to Disarmament Should Leave No One Behind: On the Importance of Discussing Declaratory Policies

As the Tenth NPT Review Conference is scheduled to take place in January 2022, the topic of declaratory policies continues to attract attention from stakeholders hopeful for substantive outcomes. Amongst those stakeholders are the 16 states of the Stockholm Initiative, an intergovernmental group, launched in June 2019 to promote a successful outcome of the Tenth Review Conference — and advocating for inclusive and incremental progress on disarmament based on the Stepping Stones Approach to Nuclear Disarmament (SSA).

The Stepping Stones Approach to Nuclear Disarmament — as its name implies — seeks to achieve disarmament through incremental steps that would move Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) away from their current arms race dynamics to a more positive dynamic ‘with the intention of reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in postures’. Amongst those steps, SSA proponents place a particular emphasis on the role and importance of declaratory policies. Declaratory policies, defined as ‘a set of public statements about the circumstances in which a state or group of states would consider using nuclear weapons’, play an important role in international security —as they increase doctrinal transparency and can appease tensions. Indeed, the Stepping Stones Approach states that NWS should ‘deepen discussions on nuclear doctrine and declaratory policies, both among themselves and with Non-Nuclear Weapon States, at the upcoming NPT Review Conference and throughout the next NPT review cycle.’ Declaratory policies can decrease nuclear risks by strengthening some aspects of Nuclear Weapons States’ negative security assurances and demonstrating a gradual relinquishment of attachment to nuclear weapons. Declaratory policies, thus, can show progress towards creating an environment for nuclear disarmament without requiring NWS to immediately or drastically change their dependence on nuclear deterrence — or make any strategic security sacrifice.

A change in declaratory policy, in and of itself, does not necessarily lower tensions. The Stepping Stones Approach, hence, highlights the importance of ‘more transparent and responsible declaratory policies’ and states that they should be discussed amongst Nuclear-Weapon States and Non-Nuclear Weapon States alike. Demonstrative of this is the recent backlash faced by the Biden Administration since considering adopting a ‘sole purpose’ doctrine for its upcoming 2022 Nuclear Posture Review. Indeed, throughout his presidential campaign, Biden indicated an interest in adopting a sole purpose policy, such that ‘the sole purpose of the United States nuclear arsenal would be to deter —and, if necessary, retaliate for— a nuclear attack against the United States and its allies’. Slightly different from a No-First Use policy, which would state that the United States ‘would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, no matter what the circumstances, reserving them strictly for retaliating after the United States or its allies had suffered a nuclear attack’, Biden’s ‘sole purpose’ policy proposal represents a departure from the US longtime policy of ambiguity regarding the circumstances in which it would consider the use of its nuclear weapons. Parting ways with ambiguity and adopting a sole purpose policy, could reassure China and Russia — if they judge the policy credible — and could participate in alleviating growing tensions between the nuclear possessors.

Such a policy, as defined by Biden during his campaign, does not weaken the US extended deterrence, as it maintains the US resolve of using nuclear weapons to retaliate against a nuclear attack on its allies. Seen as a risk reduction or confidence-building measure by some in the West — the possibility of adopting such a policy has, however, been met with concern across the Atlantic and Pacific. US allies who benefit from its nuclear umbrella and currently feel threatened by their neighbours, have been the most vocal against that policy. Across the Atlantic, NATO Eastern European allies, namely Poland and the Baltic states, are particularly concerned, as tensions have been worsening on their eastern front with Russia and Belarus. Łukasz Kulesa, the Deputy Head of Research at PISM, argues that an explicit US renunciation of using nuclear weapons first to defend its NATO allies —despite already not being very credible— would have ‘detrimental effects when it comes to the perception (both internally, and by the adversaries) of the general resolve of the US to support its allies.’ For Jüri Luik, Estonia’s permanent representative to NATO, the United States should maintain its current policy of ambiguity and of unpredictability of a response, including a nuclear response to a conventional attack as, it would ‘create another layer in making the decision to, for instance, attack Estonia or the Baltic states much more difficult and much more challenging’. Across the Pacific, Japanese officials share the same concerns and have urged the United States not to adopt a sole purpose policy — as they believe that such a policy could weaken the US extended deterrence, at a time when their security environment is worsening with China’s growing military (and nuclear) power.

The United States allies’ concerns over Washington adopting a sole purpose policy are not unfounded, however, such a policy, as defined by the Biden Administration does not weaken extended deterrence. The backlash against the adoption of a sole purpose policy, however, shows that if the United States is committed towards disarmament — and wants to use declaratory policies towards that goal — it will need to reassure its allies that it is committed to their security and safety, without disregarding their concerns and needs. The SSA offers an inclusive approach to disarmament that brings about mutual understanding and acceptance between states. Its inclusive and empathetic approach takes States’ national security interests and concerns into consideration to advance dialogue and agreement.

The SSA will allow the United States to reduce its salience on nuclear weapons in cooperation with its allies. The United States needs to reassure its nuclear umbrella beneficiaries, that the possible decrease of tensions between the United States and Russia/China offered by a sole purpose policy would be in their allies’ interest — rather than weaken their security. Without such discussions between the United States and its allies — any US step towards disarmament might be seen, by its allies, as a step towards insecurity.

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