19 August 2016

Why Obama should declare a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons

Ramesh Thakur

Ramesh Thakur

Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy and the co-convener of...


The world currently faces two existential threats: climate change and nuclear Armageddon. Those who doubt the existence of the first are generally derided as denialists, while those who play down the likelihood of the second are generally praised as realists. Perhaps this is why President Obama has been so cautious about declaring a “no-first-use” policy for America’s nuclear weapons during his final months in office, a proposal that has run into opposition even among top cabinet members. Major changes like this should not be taken lightly, of course, but the president should stick to his guns on this one. Not only would a no-first-use commitment reduce the risk of nuclear war and set a safer example for other nuclear powers, but it would do so at a time when arsenals are growing and tensions are mounting—particularly in Asia, where the main action of a new nuclear age is unfolding.

Creating a safer world. Reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict made sense during the Cold War, when the United States and its allies confronted a massive Soviet threat along the entire European front. That world is now history, but the doomsday weapons that defined it are not, which means we need to change how we think about them.

Americans need to acknowledge that, practically speaking, their nuclear arsenal currently exists for the purposes of deterrence only, and that a first-use policy therefore has little use as a military or foreign policy tool. The United States would almost certainly never use its nuclear weapons against an enemy that does not have any because the political and moral cost would be too high, which also makes the threat of using them in such a scenario rather empty. And using them against another nuclear power would, thanks to the logic of deterrence, be suicidal. A no-first-use declaration, therefore, would put to rest a policy that has all but outlived any practical utility. The Defense Department has also acknowledged the declining role of America’s nuclear arsenal in deterring non-nuclear attacks, due to the growing capabilities of conventional forces. Any deterrent capability that does remain, such as against chemical or biological attacks, as well as against nuclear attacks, could be preserved by a qualified US no-first-use policy. Regardless of the caveats, however, once Americans have accepted this new reality, it will be easier to adopt a more restrained nuclear doctrine that other nations can then support and other nuclear powers can mimic.

Take, for example, Pakistan’s development of tactical nuclear weapons as a counter to India’s conventional superiority and its own lack of strategic depth. This raises the possibility of a nuclear first strike against India, particularly if India invades Pakistan with conventional forces. Yet for the reasons mentioned above, namely the suicidal nature of such an attack against another nuclear power, a first strike is highly unlikely to actually occur. (And unless religious fanatics are the ones ordering the launch, leaders will always choose a conventional military defeat over a self-annihilating nuclear exchange.) Nevertheless, with a first-use option still on the table, Pakistan might be encouraged to deploy tactical nukes on the forward edge of the battlefield, which requires the delegation of command and control to military units in the field and increases the risk of miscalculation, accident, theft, and infiltration by militant groups.

Were Washington to set a more restrained example by taking a firm stand against first-use policies, such a scenario would be less likely to develop. Any nuclear power that makes a no-first-use declaration avoids the need for forward deployment, launch-on-warning postures, and pre-delegation of authority to battlefield commanders, thereby significantly dampening the prospects of accidental and unauthorized use. A no-first-use policy also counteracts crisis instability in that it reduces the pressure on decision makers to “use or lose” their nuclear weapons. Thus where a first-use posture can heighten the dangers of a crisis between nuclear adversaries, a no-first-use posture can help to defuse them.

Yet until a new American nuclear policy comes around to try to make the world safer, the current one will continue to cause trouble.

India, for example, is one of only two states to have an official no-first-use position. Its August 1999 draft doctrine declared that “India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.” In 2002, its National Security Advisory Board recommended totally abandoning no first use because it was so unpopular among other nuclear powers. The government decided to subtly alter the policy instead, aligning it closer to US doctrine by specifying scenarios in which India could retaliate with nuclear weapons, such as “against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere” or in response to a biological or chemical attack. It’s impossible to miss the way the US position affected these decisions.

The US influence can be felt in Beijing as well, where the world’s only other official no-first-use policy has come under strain. For various reasons, including growing US conventional capability, America’s continuing interest in ballistic missile defense systems, and Washington’s refusal to adopt a no-first-use policy, Chinese leaders worry that the United States harbors doubts about China’s second-strike capability. This is hardly a recipe for safety and stability, and it doesn’t help that the United States has refused to acknowledge mutual nuclear vulnerability vis-à-vis China. According to Gregory Kulacki of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in “a significant—and dangerous—change in Chinese policy,” China’s military planners have for the first time begun to discuss putting the country’s nuclear missiles on high alert, believing that this “would be a step toward assured retaliation.” It is hard to see China’s no-first-use policy surviving such a change. And if Beijing follows the Russian and US lead by adopting a high-alert posture, how long before the trend proliferates to India and Pakistan?

If the United States adopted a no-first-use policy, it might at least counteract some of these dangerous trends. It may also lead to a coalition of nuclear-armed states adopting no-first-use policies, which could also have a reinforcing effect, with more states wanting to follow the American lead. Such a culture of restraint would have the added nonproliferation benefit of depriving nuclear aspirants of the excuse that they need an independent deterrent capability against a nuclear strike.

The umbrella will hold. One of the loudest objections to an American no-first-use declaration is that it could disrupt the nuclear deterrence Washington extends to its non-nuclear allies, countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The Japanese government in particular has expressed concern about this, as have Britain, France, and South Korea. Yet extended nuclear deterrence has its limitations, and it’s not clear if American security guarantees would change much if Washington adopted a no-first-use policy.

While the United States has firm security commitments to countries in northern Asia, for example, these do not include, according to the arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis, a specific commitment to use nuclear weapons in their defense—especially against non-nuclear attacks. Michael Krepon, writing recently for Arms Control Wonk, put it this way: “The United States is not going to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Allies who believe otherwise are attached to a fiction and a psychological crutch.”

Thus while an American no-first-use declaration would certainly cause some commotion in the short term, with the proper diplomatic efforts to reassure allies of Washington’s ongoing security commitments, there shouldn’t be any long-term damage done to those relationships—or any practical change to the security commitments themselves.

Pacific perspectives. The lion’s share of that diplomacy would be directed toward Asian allies, and rightfully so.

Asia is still the only region to have seen nuclear weapons deployed in anger, and now, having played host to the horrifying birth of the first nuclear age, it finds itself at the center of the second—the world’s great-power rivalries having shifted there from Europe after the Cold War. It boasts a full spectrum of nuclear players, from China, a legal nuclear power in the eyes of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; to India and Pakistan, two of the three nuclear-armed states not recognized by the treaty; to North Korea, the only country to leave the treaty to pursue a nuclear arsenal; to US allies like Australia, Japan, and South Korea, treaty members who have renounced the pursuit of their own nuclear weapons and relied instead on the American security umbrella. Asia has seen the most serious nonproliferation violations in the last two decades—nuclear detonations by India and Pakistan in 1998 and North Korea in 2006 and after—as well as the only nuclear testing today, also in North Korea. And at a time when no other nuclear-armed state is doing so, all four of the region’s nuclear powers are currently enlarging their warhead stockpiles.

In short, name a nuclear risk or threat and Asia has it.

And unlike the superpower tête-à-tête of the last century, the second nuclear age features a multiplicity of nuclear powers with crisscrossing ties of cooperation and conflict, fragile command-and-control systems, critical cyber vulnerabilities, threat perceptions occurring among three or more nuclear-armed states simultaneously, asymmetric perceptions of the military and political utility of nuclear weapons, and, as a result, a greater complexity of deterrence relations. The nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan, for example, is deeply intertwined—conceptually, politically, and strategically—with China as a nuclear power.

This is a situation that needs all the de-escalation measures it can get. And despite the concerns of American allies in the region, a no-first-use declaration from Washington would ultimately set an example of greater caution and restraint that is very much needed amid the hurly-burly of this new nuclear era.

A new nuclear legacy. Barack Obama entered office with a strong commitment to arms control and nuclear disarmament. His first major foreign policy speech, in Prague in 2009, envisioned a world no longer burdened by such horrible weapons. He followed that up with the New START agreement with Russia, four Nuclear Security Summits, last year’s Iran deal, and his historic visit to Hiroshima in May. As he rightly noted in an op-ed earlier this year, “As the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons, the United States has a moral obligation to continue to lead the way in eliminating them.” The question now is how the president will further that goal during his final months in office.

According to Josh Rogin of the Washington Post, Obama has held meetings this summer with select members of his cabinet “to review options for executive actions on nuclear policy,” including a no-first-use declaration. The proposals have met with substantial objections, including from political allies, but that does not mean they aren’t without support. In 2014, both China and India called for negotiations on a no-first-use convention among the world’s nuclear powers. If Washington would move in a similar direction, it would not only make its own arsenal safer (reduced alert levels, downgraded launch-on-warning deployments, etc.) but help reduce tensions in one of the most dangerous parts of the world. It might also have positive effects in terms of curtailing nuclear modernization and expansion plans, both in the United States and abroad, and create an international atmosphere more conductive to arms-control efforts.

Stability in today’s nuclear world is precarious to begin with, resting on some very delicate conditions like the presence of rational decision makers behind each nuclear arsenal and the absence of any rogue launches, human-error incidents, or system malfunctions. For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and fail-safe mechanisms must work every single time. For nuclear Armageddon to break out, they must break down only once. This is not a comforting equation, and as more states acquire nuclear weapons it only gets more complicated.

No less an authority than former defense secretary William Perry has warned that “the danger of nuclear catastrophe today is greater than during the Cold War.” President Obama ought to use his remaining time in office to do everything he can to lessen that threat.

Editor’s note: Some material in this article originally appeared in a paper the author published in July.