WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Monday that he was revamping American nuclear strategy to substantially narrow the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons, even in self- defense.
But the president said in an interview that he was carving out an exception for “outliers like Iran and North Korea” that have violated or renounced the main treaty to halt nuclear proliferation.
Discussing his approach to nuclear security the day before formally releasing his new strategy, Obama described his policy as part of a broader effort to edge the world toward making nuclear weapons obsolete, and to create incentives for countries to give up any nuclear ambitions. To set an example, the new strategy renounces the development of any new nuclear weapons, overruling the initial position of his own defense secretary.
Obama’s strategy is a sharp shift from those adopted by his predecessors and seeks to revamp the nation’s nuclear posture for a new age in which rogue states and terrorist organizations are greater threats than traditional powers like Russia and China.
It eliminates much of the ambiguity that has deliberately existed in American nuclear policy since the opening days of the Cold War. For the first time, the United States is 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, or launched a crippling cyber-attack.
Those threats, he argued, could be deterred with “a series of graded options,” a combination of old and newly designed conventional weapons.
“I’m going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure,” Obama said during the interview in the Oval Office.
White House officials said that the new strategy will leave open the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reaches a level that makes the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike.
Obama’s new strategy is bound to be controversial, both among conservatives who have warned against diluting America’s most potent deterrent, and among liberals who were hoping for a blanket statement that America would never be the first to use nuclear weapons.