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The case for no-first-use nuclear weapons policy

At the beginning of the Cold war, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its Doomsday clock to 2 minutes till midnight — midnight meaning nuclear annihilation. At the end of the Cold War, the clock reset to 17 minutes to midnight. Now the clock sits at 3 minutes to midnight. In other words, the world is closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cold War.

As the only country ever to use a nuclear weapon, the United States has a responsibility to act. Washington’s hair-trigger nuclear weapon policy is a remnant of the Cold War. The current approach has failed to defuse nuclear tensions, deter proliferation, or lead to a more peaceful world.

{mosads}It needs to be replaced by a No-First-Use policy; that the United States will not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances. The advantages are overwhelming. A No-First-Use policy would:

Defuse nuclear tensions. The United States declaring a No-First-Use will create a safer world. Moscow, Beijing, and all powers will be reassured of U.S. intentions of only using nuclear weapons as a defense and deterrent. In a conflict against another nuclear-state, the chance of a nuclear mishap diminishes.

Deters nuclear proliferation. If the United States is on a hair-trigger regarding nuclear weapons, other states will see the value in acquiring them. Adopting a No-First-Use policy would show non-nuclear states that we are not a nuclear threat to them, curbing proliferation.

Role model. The U.S. should be a role model to the rest of the nuclear world. A world with a First-Use policy is a world without security. What happens if Pakistan is on a heightened state of nuclear alert? Escalation in any conflict with India would mean a high likelihood of nuclear war. If the U.S. takes the first step to ratchet back First-Use, others will follow.

The arguments against No-First-Use are unpersuasive. Current United States nuclear weapon policy is already ade facto No-First-Use policy, so leaving First-Use on the table creates less safety, not more. Critiques say No-First-Use would undermine the U.S. nuclear umbrella, pushing our allies to develop nuclear weapons and triggering a new round of nuclear proliferation. They say potential adversaries could engage in conventional warfare, cyber warfare, or acts of military aggression without triggering a nuclear response by the United States. Yet potential adversaries already engage in acts of conventional warfare, cyber warfare, or acts of military aggression without eliciting a nuclear response.

Another argument against No-First-Use is it would make the world safe for large-scale conventional warfare, because there would be no risk of a nuclear response from the United States. This argument relies on the assumption that the United States would not retaliate with overwhelming conventional forces, which are also a powerful deterrent. During a conflict with Russia or China, the risk of miscalculation rises dramatically so the United States should eliminate the possibility of devastating nuclear war.

The other eight nuclear-states surely analyze U.S. nuclear weapons policy and craft their own in response to it. Our current hair-trigger nuclear policy is counterproductive, a cold-war artifact that heightens risk. A policy of No-First-Use will defuse nuclear tensions, deter proliferation, and lead to a more peaceful world. For the sake of the next generation, let’s put some time back on the nuclear clock. 

Jake Smith is a masters candidate at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs obtaining a degree in Security Policy Studies. 

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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