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– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Bush Administration Reaffirms Negative Security Assurances
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Philipp C. Bleek

On February 22, the State Department reiterated a longstanding U.S. policy that restricts the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-armed states, after a senior arms control official cast doubt on the Bush administration’s support for the pledge.

Responding to a question at a press briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher repeated a 1995 version of a commitment first made in 1978: “The United States reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon state parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT], except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies or on a state toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear weapon state in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.”

Boucher subsequently qualified the pledge, saying, “We will do whatever is necessary to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its allies, and its interests. If a weapon of mass destruction is used against the United States or its allies, we will not rule out any specific type of military response.”

The United States first formally enunciated the nuclear pledge, known as a “negative security assurance,” in 1978 and reiterated it in slightly less restrictive form prior to the 1995 NPT review and extension conference to encourage the non-nuclear-weapon states to support the indefinite extension of the treaty. Similar pledges were made by the other four NPT nuclear-weapon states and subsequently noted in a UN Security Council resolution.

However, despite the language in the negative security assurance—and consistent with Boucher’s qualification of the pledge—U.S. officials have repeatedly refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological or chemical weapon attacks. For example, in April 1996 Defense Secretary William Perry said that if “some nation were to attack the United States with chemical weapons, then they would have to fear the consequences of a response from any weapon in our inventory.”

U.S. diplomats have tended to emphasize the negative security assurances policy in international forums, such as arms control negotiations, while the Defense Department has enunciated its purposefully ambiguous qualification of the pledge in response to specific perceived threats, such as during the Persian Gulf War when it was feared Iraq might use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops.

Boucher’s comments came after John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, questioned the value of negative security assurances in a February 11 interview with Arms Control Today, saying that they are not “terribly helpful in analyzing what our security needs may be in the real world.” Bolton argued that such security commitments “were made in a very different geostrategic context” and indicated that they would be reviewed prior to the next NPT review conference in 2005. (See interview.)

Bolton subsequently told The Washington Times that “we are not ruling anything in and we are not ruling anything out.” He continued, “We are just not into theoretical assertions that other administrations have made.”

Questioned about Bolton’s comments to The Washington Times, which appeared in a February 21 article, Boucher said that the undersecretary had in fact been “reiterating” the longstanding U.S. policy on negative security assurances and that there has been “no change in U.S. policy.”