The folly of a no-first-use nuclear policy

The Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), launched in July 2021, is likely to be completed in early 2022. Although it will deal with several issues related to the United States’ nuclear deterrent – including the future size, composition and modernization of the nuclear force – perhaps the most important strategic question it will address is whether to adopt a no-first-use declaratory policy.

In contrast to the policy spelled out in the 2018 NPR, which permits the U.S. to use nuclear weapons first “in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners,” a no-first-use (NFU) policy would prohibit the use of nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack.

Supporters of NFU hope that the ongoing review will recommend abandoning the current nuclear posture in favor of a strategy that relies far less on the use of nuclear weapons. To them, and to many Americans, adopting such a nuclear posture seems like a very good idea.

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But it isn’t. In fact, it’s a folly — and a dangerous folly at that. 

Unsurprisingly, advocates of NFU – including organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and perhaps even President Biden himself – don’t see it that way. To them, NFU is simply the only rational nuclear posture possible.

To begin with, they argue, it is better suited to today’s strategic realities. The U.S. currently enjoys overwhelming conventional military superiority and simply does not need a nuclear first-use option to deter or defeat non-nuclear attacks.

Moreover, they argue, no U.S. president would ever order the use of nuclear forces to repel a conventional attack knowing full well that to do so would invite a retaliatory nuclear strike against the American homeland. The threat of first-use in response to conventional attack therefore lacks all credibility. Finally, advocates of NFU argue that adopting such a posture would reinforce the norm against the use of nuclear weapons, thus reducing the existential risk of all-out nuclear war. 

Detractors, on the other hand, do view NFU as a dangerous folly.

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Among the general criticisms of such an approach are that it would leave the U.S. without the ability to deter non-nuclear non-conventional attacks (involving, say, biological or chemical weapons); that such restraint would not be credible in the eyes of potential adversaries who would always have to assume that the U.S. would retain a practical first-use option; and that there is no reason to believe that other nuclear powers would follow suit.

But in today’s world of great power competition and near-peer rivals, perhaps the most telling criticism of NFU is that such a posture would weaken deterrence against conventional attack. Here the logic is both straightforward and compelling. Although the United States remains the world’s most powerful conventional military power, in recent years China and Russia have made dramatic gains in conventional capabilities. 

Indeed, they may well have achieved local military superiority over the United States and its allies in some parts of the world. As a result, Washington cannot casually assume that U.S. and allied conventional forces would be sufficient to deter China or Russia from exploiting their local advantages and launching a conventional attack against America’s regional allies and interests.

Absent the threat of American first use of nuclear weapons, the advantage would thus lie with the aggressor, who would not have to factor even the possibility of the U.S. using nuclear weapons to reverse its early conventional military successes. But the possibility that those early successes might trigger the use of U.S. nuclear weapons on the battlefield – and that this might escalate to a general strategic nuclear exchange – would change the equation significantly. 

If that possibility (the “threat that leaves something to chance,” in Thomas Schelling’s timeless formulation) had to be factored into the equation, the incentive to exploit whatever conventional military advantage a great power rival might possess would be greatly reduced. Indeed, under those circumstances, a conventional attack on U.S. interests and allies would be simply irrational.

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Perversely, then, adopting NFU might well have the unintended consequence of increasing the likelihood of war. That is not to say that there would be no point to the Biden administration issuing a so-called “sole purpose” declaration. Unlike a declaratory policy of NFU, which would prohibit the use of nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack on the U.S., a sole purpose declaration would state why the United States possesses nuclear weapons, without necessarily imposing constraints on their use. 

For example, such a declaration might state that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter attacks on the United States and its allies, without prohibiting the use nuclear weapons preemptively or first, in the event of extreme and unforeseen non-nuclear attacks against them. It wouldn’t in the end be all that different from the posture advocated in the 2018 NPR vision, but it would signal once again that the United States’ nuclear arsenal is meant to be used only in extremis. It would also signal Washington’s willingness to continue to play the role of “balancer of last resort.”

The benefit of such a sole purpose declaration, properly framed, over existing policy is that it would deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons in American strategy. The benefit of such a policy over NFU is that it would do so without undermining extended deterrence against non-nuclear attack. The former is a prudent way forward; the latter, a strategic folly — and a dangerous one at that.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.