President Obama, who has weighed ruling out a first use of a nuclear weapon in a conflict, appears likely to abandon the proposal after top national security advisers argued that it could undermine allies and embolden Russia and China, according to several senior administration officials.
Mr. Obama considers a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons as critical to his legacy. But he has been chagrined to hear critics, including some former senior aides, argue that the administration’s second-term nuclear modernization plans, costing up to $1 trillion in coming decades, undermine commitments he made in 2009.
For months, arms control advocates have argued for a series of steps to advance the pledge he made to pursue “a world without nuclear weapons.” An unequivocal no-first-use pledge would have been the boldest of those measures. They contend that as a practical matter no American president would use a nuclear weapon when so many other options are available.
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Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry said in a recent interview, “It’s the right time,” noting that the pledge would formalize what has been America’s unspoken policy for decades.
But in the end, Mr. Obama seems to have sided with his current advisers, who warned in meetings culminating this summer that a no-first-use declaration would rattle allies like Japan and South Korea. Those nations are concerned about discussion of an American pullback from Asia prompted by comments made by the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump.
According to one senior administration official, Mr. Kerry told Mr. Obama that a no-first-use pledge would also weaken the nuclear deterrent while Russia is running practice bombing runs over Europe and China is expanding its reach in the South China Sea.
Mr. Obama and his national security team have rejected a second option: “de-alerting” nuclear missiles ready to fire on short notice. The fear is that in a crisis, “re-alerting” the weapons could escalate a conflict.
Earlier, Mr. Obama and his aides also decided against eliminating one element of the “triad” of land-, air- and submarine-launched weapons. The idea was to remove the missiles based in silos across the American West, which are considered outdated and vulnerable to a first strike. But the Pentagon argued strongly that the ground-based missiles were the part of the system with which they had the most assured communications, and that it was too risky to get rid of them.
In the past year, arms control advocates, including some of Mr. Obama’s former aides, have argued that Mr. Obama still has time to repair his reputation as an atomic visionary.
“Let Obama be Obama,” Andrew C. Weber, an assistant secretary of defense for atomic programs from 2009 to 2014, said in an interview.
Mr. Weber strongly opposes the White House’s recent approval of a nuclear cruise missile. “The defense complex is doing a full-court press, so things are going to be very hard to change,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s favorite nuclear strategist in his first term, the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James E. Cartwright, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed article last month with Bruce G. Blair of Princeton University, a former Minuteman launch officer, that “nuclear weapons today no longer serve any purpose beyond deterring the first use of such weapons by our adversaries.”
The doubters included Philip E. Coyle III and Steve Fetter, who had recently left White House posts.
Had Mr. Obama issued the no-first-use declaration, officials conceded, the next president could have rejected it. In an interview this year, Mr. Trump bristled at the idea, saying he would never want to weaken America’s leverage. Mrs. Clinton has not spoken on the issue during her campaign.
But a no-first-use policy would have been hard for either to undo. Military experts say the next president would hesitate to reverse such a decision since the quick reversal would confuse allies and possibly fray important coalitions.