We must eliminate nuclear weapons, but a ‘No First Use’ Policy is not the answer

Getty Images
States in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will meet for the first time June 21-23, 2022, in Vienna.

We should all be able to agree that the world would be safer if we rid it of nuclear weapons. As both a student of history and of physics, I strongly believe that must be humanity’s collective goal, or humanity itself may not survive the centuries.

As we work to realize that goal, we should aggressively pursue every sensible avenue for reducing the current risks of the world’s nuclear arms. We must redouble our efforts to create a new arms control treaty with Russia and China with an eye towards fulfilling the promise we all made to eliminate our nuclear arsenals as stated in Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). We must engage with North Korea to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. We must work with Iran to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) and reestablish limits on their nuclear program. And we must work to create an international security environment that incentivizes all other nuclear-armed states to eliminate their nuclear weapons.

But as we work to reduce and eventually eliminate the existential risks these weapons pose, we must always do so in ways that incentivize our adversaries to do the same and do not compromise our own national security or that of our allies in the process. A “no first use” or “sole purpose” doctrine, stating that America would use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack, would compromise our national security and that of our allies. It would embolden our adversaries in their efforts to expand their spheres of influence, undermine our commitments to our allies and partners, and even risk new proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. 

For that reason, as the administration considers this question during an upcoming meeting on nuclear declaratory policy with the National Security Council this month, I urge President Biden to reserve the option that the United States could use nuclear weapons in response to both nuclear and non-nuclear attacks on the U.S. or our allies.

Many of our treaty allies depend on our extended nuclear deterrence for our collective security, both across Asia and Europe. A “no first use” or “sole purpose” doctrine could encourage Russia and China to be even more aggressive in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Such a policy might also make our allies afraid that the U.S. is abandoning our long-held commitments in the face of nuclear-capable aggressors. According to recent reporting, one European official said that a declaration of this policy would “be a huge gift to China and Russia.” In some cases, this policy may even incentivize our allies to acquire their own nuclear deterrents, which would undermine decades of American and international nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

Some argue that a “no first use” or “sole purpose” doctrine would eliminate the risk of miscalculation by an adversary; would set an example for other nuclear-armed states; and would encourage nuclear disarmament globally. More likely, our adversaries will never trust our declaration more than their own early warning systems; their buildup of nuclear arms will continue; and proliferation could worsen.

Our own senior leadership is skeptical of China’s proclaimed “no first use” policy: in congressional testimony last year, STRATCOM Commander ADM Charles Richard stated that he “could drive a truck through [China’s] no first use policy,” particularly given its ongoing expansion of their nuclear arsenal. Likewise, a unilateral American declaration of “no first use” would likely have minimal impact on future arms control talks while diminishing our security relationships with allies. President Obama, a leader who expressed a clear commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world, repeatedly considered a “no first use” doctrine and decided against it. In recent years, the nuclear threat from states like China and Russia has only worsened.

I fervently share the president’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons entirely, but eliminating these weapons requires leverage we should not give up unilaterally, especially to nations that do not share our principled goals. And while we pursue arms reductions, we must also remain responsible to our own and our allies’ national security interests. For the sake of our national security, I urge President Biden against declaring a “no first use” or “sole purpose” doctrine in the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review.

Moulton represents the 6th District of Massachusetts and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and he co-chaired the Future of Defense Task Force.

Tags Barack Obama Joe Biden No first use Nuclear proliferation

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video