President Biden should pledge never to use nuclear weapons first
President Biden can make the world a dramatically safer place by declaring that it is now the policy of the United States never to use nuclear weapons first. Such a pledge is consistent with international legal obligations, fulfills campaign promises, and diminishes the risk of using a nuclear weapon. It would make countries subject to the nuclear weapons threats less nervous in a crisis, when irrationality can lead to disaster. It would add to global stability by lowering the political currency of nuclear weapons.
And significantly, it would help strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the world’s most important arms control treaty. Pursuant to Article VI of the treaty, five nuclear weapons states — United Kingdom, United States, Russia, China, and France — have pledged to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
The NPT needs such a boost. Notwithstanding the commitment to disarmament, the five nuclear weapons states, plus the four others not in the treaty — India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea — are spending enormous amounts of money modernizing or expanding their nuclear arsenals, or both. Because of the omicron surge in New York, an important 50-year review conference for the treaty (the tenth five-year review), which was supposed to take place next week, has been postponed for the second year in a row (the scheduled 2020 conference was also cancelled due to a winter COVID surge). Meanwhile, nuclear tensions continue to rise, making progress toward meeting the NPT’s goals critically important.
Normally the NPT gets reviewed every five years. At these periodic review conferences, every nation in the world (except the four that aren’t NPT parties) analyze the state of the treaty’s nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament obligations, and strike agreements to strengthen proliferation constraints and make tangible progress toward a nuclear weapons-free world.
The review process reinforces the core NPT bargain, a quid pro quo in which states without nuclear weapons commit to nonproliferation in exchange for guaranteed access to peaceful uses of nuclear technology, and a promise by nuclear weapons states to negotiate nuclear disarmament. Dozens of threat-reducing pledges have been negotiated and agreed upon at these conferences. One good example is the pledge to establish “a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination.”
As challenges to the stability of the arms control regime continue to escalate, the best way forward is to make some progress now towards fulfilling the NPT’s goals. Upholding the integrity of the arms control regime is key to preventing a cascade of nuclear weapons proliferation. Yet in the current geopolitical climate, it will be difficult to make progress on most of the specific arms control promises already made. For example, ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear weapons testing, will be hard to obtain now.
But there is one step the U.S. can take which would help reverse this dangerous situation: declaring it will never use nuclear weapons first. That would lend credibility to the sincerity of U.S. commitment to fulfilling its disarmament pledges under the NPT.
A no-first-use pledge is consistent with the platform of the Democratic Party on which President Biden campaigned, which states, “(The) sole purpose of our nuclear arsenals should be to deter — and, if necessary retaliate against — a nuclear attack, and we will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with our allies and military.” A U.S. pledge would challenge all nuclear weapons states to make similar pledges.
When brought into deployment practice, a no-first-use posture could make us all dramatically safer. Today, the nuclear posture of the U.S. and Russia supports continuing to threaten to use nuclear weapons first. In practice this tends to keep the arsenals close to Cold War hair-trigger alert status. Such conduct ignores the most important principle of international civilized order and diplomacy: pacta sunt servanda, solemn promises among nations must be kept. Failure to keep arms control commitments — in the nuclear age — could mean the annihilation of civilization.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev got it right when they agreed that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.
Reagan and Gorbachev helped reduce the number of nuclear weapons from more than 65,000 in 1985 to fewer than 14,000 today. This process rested on arms control agreements such as the NPT.
Affirming that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter attack would respect the NPT, diminish the extremity of the status quo, and help move from an environment of irrational threat to a shared recognition of common security interests and the realistic pursuit of human security.
Thomas Graham Jr. is an internationally recognized expert on arms control who served for nearly three decades at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, including 15 years as general counsel and as acting director for most of 1993. In 1994, President Clinton appointed him special representative for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, with the rank of ambassador. Graham has been involved in every major arms control treaty of the 20th century, including the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks ( START), the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ( CTBT), and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces ( INF) Treaty, and has participated in nuclear talks with more than 100 countries.
Jonathan Granoff is president of the Global Security Institute, and senior advisor and representative to the United Nations of the Permanent Secretariat of the World Summits of Nobel Peace Laureates. He chairs the Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation of the International Law Section of the American Bar Association, and is a fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Science. He testified as an expert before the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, and the Canadian and U.K. Parliaments. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.