A commitment to never use nuclear weapons first will not make us safer
Nuclear threats did not end with the Cold War, and they could be getting even more dangerous in the modern era today. North Korea has illegally developed an atomic and ballistic missile program, Russia is brandishing a new range of nuclear delivery systems, and China continues to build up its strategic arsenal. Meanwhile, measures which have helped to keep the world safe for years, such as the half century old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and other arms control agreements, are facing several challenges.
This worrisome state of nuclear affairs is leading some, including policy thinkers in the three Western democracies armed with nuclear weapons, which are the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, to consider taking new steps to limit the risk of nuclear weapons use. However, some of these supposed precautions, for instance the doctrine of “No First Use,” could actually make the world even less secure. “No First Use” is a public commitment to never to use nuclear weapons, except in response to their use by another power. It has been the declared stance of China and India, although recent remarks by the Indian government raise complications. “No First Use” was also briefly adopted by the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
The case for “No First Use” seems simple. If all states armed with nuclear weapons agree to never use them first then, in theory, they would never be used at all. It may develop the commitments by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China to use nuclear weapons only defensively. “No First Use” could even offer a new route toward a world without nuclear weapons, to which all nuclear powers are committed.
However, upon closer examination, these benefits are illusory. “No First Use” is almost impossible to verify in peacetime. In a crisis situation, few would trust any adversarial nuclear powers to keep their “No First Use” pledge. Instead, they would expect them to qualify their commitments to gain leverage because interests, not stated commitments, will remain a much more trustworthy guide to their behavior. Finally, how could a “No First Use” policy deter the use of other weapons of mass destruction? It may embolden adversaries to attack by increasing the odds of success.
The last point here is most notable, particularly for the United Kingdom and France, which are democracies with limited conventional forces and nuclear arsenals kept at a “strict sufficiency” level. If massed forces were threatening the vital interests of the United Kingdom or France, then they might have to consider signaling a possible nuclear response. For both countries, “No First Use” is neither practical nor credible. Moreover, even if the United States adopted the posture, the United Kingdom and France would have to demur, creating a possibly damaging split in the alliance.
Further, for the United States to adopt a “No First Use” stance would call into question their extended deterrence guarantees and other security commitments. This could tempt some adversaries to attack United States allies without fearing an escalation, therefore transforming a tactical win against some of those same allies into a strategic victory against Western democracies. It could even invite doubt in the minds of our adversaries whether the “one for all, all for one” Article Five commitment at the heart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was still valid. To offset such a risk, significant conventional reinforcements would be required, which would have a large impact on resources and could also be destabilizing.
In extremes, allies may feel it necessary to develop nuclear programs of their own. Far from limiting nuclear dangers, “No First Use” could actually spur proliferation. Because of these real dangers, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization considered “No First Use” in 1999, it had rejected the policy decisively. President Obama, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, offered a credible path toward a world free from nuclear weapons, declaring his firm conclusion that “No First Use” was not the way to go.
There are far more promising ways to make the world safer from nuclear threats. The United States can reaffirm that nuclear weapons are purely defensive and designed only to preserve vital national interests. Officials can intensify the dialogue on doctrine among the leading nuclear powers to minimize the risks of any misunderstanding. Preserving existing arms control regimes and promoting new initiatives should also be priorities.
These steps might not be easy to take, but they would increase stability, while “No First Use” could undermine the function of nuclear weapons as means of deterrence. The challenges in the modern era posed by nuclear weapons and proliferation need to be contained, and progress on nuclear arms control has become as urgent as ever. But for the United States to conclude that it should adopt a “No First Use” policy would be a strategic mistake, and would invite greater nuclear dangers on itself and its allies.
Iain King is a visiting fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and was defense counselor in the British Embassy in Washington.