Declaring a no-first-use nuclear policy would be exceedingly risky

By Gordon G. Chang | July 27, 2016

Various defense and disarmament experts have suggested that in the coming months, US President Barack Obama will declare a no-first-use stance on nuclear weapons, which would mark a fundamental policy shift. In June, Bruce Blair, co-founder of the pro-disarmament organization Global Zero, wrote in Politico, “I believe Obama will soon announce that henceforth the United States will never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict.” Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin asserted as much on July 10, citing officials who said the president was considering a no-first-use declaration. A few days later, Japan’s Kyodo News reported that President Obama would decide by the end of this month whether to announce the policy shift.

Would declaring no-first-use actually be a good idea, though? The answer is no, at least not now. Unilateral changes of this sort should be made only in times of strategic stability. At this time, America and its treaty partners are already having difficulty deterring big-state aggressors in Europe and Asia, and may need their most destructive weaponry to maintain peace and stability in troubled regions. 

As its name implies, a no-first-use policy is a promise to use nuclear weapons only in retaliation for a nuclear attack. There are, of course, reasons to favor such a policy, and none is more important than avoiding history’s last war. As Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, wrote in War on the Rocks, “A clear U.S. no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear miscalculation by nuclear-armed adversaries by alleviating concerns about a devastating U.S. nuclear first-strike, especially during a crisis.” Blair put forth a more practical perspective: “The strategy today,” he wrote of America’s first-use posture, “has grown less and less connected to the contemporary world and its emerging security threats: terrorism, proliferation, cyber warfare, economic disruption, mass refugee migrations, and climate change.” Proponents of first use, Blair suggested, are “mired in a Cold-War mind-set.” 

Today, unfortunately, resembles that multi-decade, global struggle in crucial respects. During the Cold War, big-power authoritarians threatened the international system, seizing territory and using armies to hold on to their new possessions. Now, China is grabbing specks in the South China Sea. It effectively seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, and is threatening to take others, notably Second Thomas Shoal, also claimed by the Philippines, and the Japan-administered Senkakus in the East China Sea. Beijing is, at the same time, sending troops deep into Indian-controlled territory in the Himalayas. Its prosecution of territorial claims is creating instability in an arc from India to South Korea.

Moscow is also on the march. Russian President Vladimir Putin dismembered Georgia last decade and Ukraine this one, annexing Crimea in 2014. At the moment, his forces are occupying a large portion of the Ukrainian region of Donbass, which he ominously calls part of “New Russia.” As former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk recently told the Washington Post, there are, despite a cease-fire, both civilian and military casualties there every single day.

No time to experiment. The West largely stood by and watched Putin’s mischief in Georgia and Ukraine, but now he has his eye on the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are NATO members, and pursuant to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on any of them would be considered an attack on all.

The alliance, however, is not at the moment capable of defending the Baltics with just conventional weapons. A RAND study released this year, reporting on the results of a series of war games, produced sobering assessments of a Russian move on the three states. “The games’ findings are unambiguous: As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,”  the authors write. “Across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of Tallinn and Riga is 60 hours.” A NATO war game in March also showed Russia winning

The West, in short, is outgunned, tank for tank, plane for plane, and soldier for soldier. To slow down Russian advances, Obama and leaders of the 27 other members of the Atlantic alliance met in Warsaw early this month for perhaps the most important NATO meeting since the fall of the Soviet Union. There, they agreed to deploy four battalions, consisting of around 4,000 troops in total, in Poland and the three Baltic states. The new force, according to the Wall Street Journal, will be “the first regular deployment aimed at deterring Moscow since the reunification of Germany more than a quarter-century ago.”

Presumably, NATO will increase the size of this small contingent. As president of the Center for Security Policy Frank Gaffney argues, though, today the West needs more than just conventional forces. He said to me in an interview that it needs to convince aggressors they can be destroyed by a first nuclear strike.

Whether maintaining a first-use policy does in fact deter aggression is much debated. Kimball argues that the risk of “an uncontrollable and potentially suicidal escalation” is so high that the threat of using nuclear weapons “lacks credibility.” Meanwhile Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told me “we don’t really know what precisely deters and what does not.” There is evidence, though, suggesting that nuclear threats can prevent conventional attacks. After all, during the Cold War, Soviet tanks could have rolled across Western Europe but never did. Back then, NATO threatened to incinerate the Soviet Union in the event of such an invasion. Odds are, the NATO threat helped stop the Soviets in their tracks. Moreover, we know that nuclear weapons affected Soviet defense thinking and planning. Moscow worked hard to prevent NATO from upgrading its nuclear arsenal, especially in the early 1980s when the Kremlin tried to forestall the deployment of America’s Pershing II missiles in Europe.

We cannot say for sure how the alliance’s most destructive weapons have affected Putin’s thinking—as Sokolski said, nuclear deterrence is “endlessly debatable”—but at least so far, a strong Russia, which had no compunction in going after non-alliance members Georgia and Ukraine, has not attacked weak, nearby NATO states.

In any event, Putin is bulking up forces on his side of the border, planning to deploy three new divisions near Poland and the Baltics. Therefore, common sense, if nothing else, suggests now may not be the best moment to adopt no-first-use and thereby create a real-life experiment on what deters aggression.

Conventional deterrence needed. The United States has maintained a first-use policy for as long as it has possessed nuclear weapons. For all their drawbacks, these weapons shortened World War II and look instrumental in having avoided global war since then.

“The current policy has served us well over many years and if there’s some movement to change that, it would require some scrutiny,” said Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of US Strategic Command, at a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces this month. “We need to be very careful given the directions and the developments we see around the world, that we do everything in our power to maintain strategic stability.” Timing, as Haney suggests, has become an issue. The moment when large states are redrawing their borders by force is not the time to try something different with America’s weapons of last resort.

That is what Washington’s Japanese allies think. Threatened by China and its ally North Korea, Tokyo does not want to see a declaration of no-first-use. As “a senior government official close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe” told Kyodo News about such a possibility, “it is unacceptable.” South Korea, Jonathan Pollack and Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution report, is also opposed to America adopting no-first-use.

The world, of course, would be far safer if all nine of the world’s nuclear-armed states—the five recognized by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the four that are not—had no-first-use policies in place. Blair, the co-founder of Global Zero, believes that if the United States took a first nuclear strike off the table, it would “exert pressure on other nations whose doctrines allow for nuclear first use—Russia and Pakistan in particular—to revise those doctrines accordingly.”

In the case of Russia, though, a revision of its first-use posture is unlikely while Putin remains in the Kremlin. He has talked about using nuclear weapons to hold onto Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and his generals, meeting with American officials in March of last year, threatened to use them to prevent NATO from reinforcing the Baltic states.

General Sir Richard Shirreff, NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander from 2011 to 2014, thinks a war with Russia over the Baltics would not stay conventional. “The chilling fact,” he told BBC Radio 4, “is that because Russia hardwires nuclear thinking and capability to every aspect of their defense capability, this would be nuclear war.”

We don’t have to take Shirreff’s word for it. Putin, while in Crimea in August 2014, talked about his country’s “new developments in offensive nuclear weapons.” And Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy said that the Russians not only have a doctrine of first-use, but are also “building first-strike capabilities, including some in violation of their arms-control obligations.” So Kimball’s argument that declaring no-first-use will reduce the possibility of nuclear conflict looks, at best, debatable.

“During the past half century, no president has dared to change the nation’s nuclear strategy in any fundamental way,” Blair wrote. He’s right to ask us to rethink risky nuclear policy, but what he does not say is that any adoption of no-first-use would require a substantial rebuilding of conventional war-fighting capabilities.

It takes years—and sometimes decades—to do that, so no-first-use is not an idea whose time has come. As Sokoloski said of nuclear weapons, “We should not want to use them first, we should be reluctant to use them first, we should do everything not to use them first, but we should not exclude the possibility of doing so.”

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