Nuclear No-First-Use (NFU) is Right for America
Recent press reporting indicates that President Obama may make a fundamental change in U.S. declared nuclear policy. The change under consideration is to formally announce that, as a matter of national policy, the United States pledges never to be the first nation to use nuclear weapons in a crisis or conflict. This would be a substantial change because the United States has officially retained the right to use nuclear weapons first since it did so in 1945 against Japan. To date, U.S. leaders have claimed that the first use of nuclear weapons might be necessary in response to an attack with chemical or biological weapons, or to a devastating attack against our allies with conventional military forces.
This long-standing U.S. policy has always been controversial. It is based on a questionable belief that once unleashed, nuclear war can be controlled and that one side can “win.” As the 1983 American film “War Games” demonstrated so vividly the only way to win nuclear war is not to play. For that reason a nuclear no-first-use (NFU) will make America and the world safer, because for the first time we will declare that we will not be the first nation to cross the nuclear threshold and start this most dangerous and uncontrollable of games.
Belief in the benefit of the possible first use of nuclear weapons has two parts. The first is that the threat to use nuclear weapons first deters potential adversaries from starting conventional conflicts or attacking the United States, its allies or its troops abroad with means less than nuclear weapons. There is no evidence to support this belief. For at least the 25 years since the end of the Cold War Washington’s assertion of its option to use nuclear weapons first has had little or no effect on the nearly constant outbreak of crises, provocations, terrorist acts and regional wars that have threatened our security interests and those of our allies. For example, nuclear threats did nothing to deter 9/11, the rise of ISIS or Russia’s use of military force in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Nuclear weapons are good for one purpose only, and that is to deter nuclear attack. A U.S. NFU pledge would acknowledge this fact by asserting that the U.S. would only use them after we or our allies had been attacked with nuclear weapons.
The second part of the view that nuclear first-use is a valuable option is the belief that using nuclear weapons first can make a bad situation better, not worse. This is dangerous thinking. There is no plausible circumstance in which the current option of nuclear first use would be in the national security interest of the United States or its allies. U.S. nuclear use in response to non-nuclear attack or against states without nuclear arms would be disproportionate and universally condemned. It would also risk almost certain nuclear retaliation by nuclear-armed adversaries, an outcome with negative consequences far exceeding any threat that prompted U.S. nuclear first use.
It is folly to believe that the use of nuclear weapons could de-escalate a conflict. That is precisely the message that U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work gave to Congress in June 2016 when he testified, "Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire. Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation." There is no doubt whatsoever that the chaos and fear following U.S. first use of nuclear weapons could lead to an all-out nuclear exchange. Military options that can lead to national suicide, such as the threat of first nuclear use, should be taken off the table.
In addition to being dangerous, the U.S. first use of nuclear weapons is simply not credible. Even now our potential adversaries doubt that we would carry out the threat to use nuclear weapons first. That is why the first use policy has not stopped provocations and aggression against our allies or us. Nuclear weapons are neither needed, nor are they effective in deterring or defeating a conventional attack against the homeland or our allies. Furthermore, they are useless in deterring or responding to terrorism or to a potential chemical, biological, or cyber-attack by non-state actors.
Key U.S. allies know they rely on the United States’ overwhelming conventional land, sea, and air forces to counter any non-nuclear attack on their territory. They do not depend on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” to deter anything but a nuclear attack. If attacked with conventional, chemical, or biological weapons, the U.S. and its NATO allies can unleash the most powerful conventional military forces in the world, with unparalleled capabilities to strike the capital city of any adversary in a matter of days. If the adversaries escalated to nuclear use, the U.S. and NATO retain survivable capabilities to respond with devastating nuclear retaliation. Adopting a NFU pledge does not require giving up the capability to use nuclear weapons promptly in such a situation and advocates of nuclear NFU do not insist on fundamental changes to U.S. nuclear readiness.
America’s current first-use policy may in fact increase the chances that adversaries will consider nuclear escalation in a non-nuclear conflict. Because they face the possibility of U.S. nuclear first use against their nuclear forces and the risk that nuclear forces surviving such an attack will be too weak to overcome U.S. missile defenses, potential adversaries are put in a position where they are tempted to use their nuclear weapons first or risk losing them. Everything possible should be done to reduce such incentives in a crisis. A nuclear NFU pledge would strengthen strategic and crisis stability while reducing incentives for the prompt use of nuclear weapons during periods of tension without sacrificing U.S. security or that of its allies.
Adopting a nuclear NFU pledge has additional political and strategic benefits. It puts the U.S. on a stronger moral footing in world affairs and is more consistent with our cultural and historical traditions. A NFU pledge would increase U.S. standing among members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and pressure other nations, like Russia and Pakistan, to adopt similar policies. It would also bring the world a step closer to a potential universal nuclear NFU agreement, with all states possessing nuclear weapons promising never to use them first. Such an agreement would lower the chances of nuclear war for everyone.