US no-first-use: The view from Asia

Barack Obama is reportedly considering a no-first-use policy for the US nuclear arsenal. Proponents of the shift say it would de-escalate potential nuclear crises, set a positive example for other nuclear-armed nations, and represent a meaningful step toward disarmament. Opponents say no-first-use would dilute the power of nuclear deterrence (thereby inviting belligerence) and unsettle US allies (encouraging nuclear proliferation). On balance, how would a US nuclear no-first-use policy affect security in East and Southeast Asia—and would the benefits of such a policy shift outweigh any potential harm?

Round 1

No-first-use: Best to maintain ambiguity

Instituting a no-first-use policy would represent sound judgment by Barack Obama—at least in terms of international politics. This policy shift would to some extent reconcile Obama's quest for eventual nuclear disarmament with the formidable nuclear arsenal that Washington still possesses. It would provide a sense of consistency with Obama's 2009 declaration that the United States would "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons"—and with Obama's own concerns about nuclear security, demonstrated through the series of Nuclear Security Summits that he initiated.

Pronouncements such as the declaration of a no-first-use policy provide useful indications about the policy thrusts of governments in general and administrations in particular. They help countries better understand each other's defense policies and postures. They serve as confidence-building measures—which, at least according to their advocates, can enhance global peace and stability and reduce both tensions and trust deficits among competing powers. Still, a no-first-use declaration by the United States would be merely a declaration. Would it really do anything substantive to keep the nuclear peace? I tend to doubt it.

Adversaries and allies. Some argue that the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a first strike by another nuclear-armed state. They argue that nuclear weapons' deterrence capacity lies in the ability to launch a second strike, not a first one. I believe otherwise—that nuclear attacks are deterred both by the ability to strike back and by the readiness to strike first. If a nation is perceived by adversaries as having "one arm deliberately tied behind its back," as Arthur Herman of the Hudson Institute has written, those adversaries may actually be encouraged to strike first, targeting nuclear assets in the process. If that's the case, declaring a no-first-use policy would undermine nuclear deterrence.

Then again, preemptive nuclear attack is not the only type of aggression that must be deterred. Take China's territorial claims in the South China Sea as an example. Washington's avowed policy is not to take sides in disputes over territory in the South China Sea, but Beijing perceives the United States as having taken up the cudgel for Southeast Asian nations, specifically the Philippines and Vietnam. Would the United States ever use nuclear weapons first in a conflict with China over the South China Sea? Perhaps not, but a no-first-use policy would remove all doubt in Beijing. Thus China might pursue its territorial claims even more aggressively—notwithstanding the Permanent Court of Arbitration's July ruling that the "nine-dash line" on which Beijing bases its broad claims in the South China Sea has no foundation in international law.

A no-first-use policy might also lead to greater aggressiveness in Pyongyang. Though North Korea has always argued that the US nuclear threat is among the fundamental reasons for its own pursuit of nuclear weapons, it would be naïve to think that Pyongyang would abandon nuclear weapons just because Washington adopted no-first-use. Rather, one can easily imagine a no-first-use declaration emboldening North Korea to pursue its nuclear program even more aggressively. Declaring a no-first-use policy simply sends the wrong message to potential aggressors. The most pragmatic approach is for nuclear weapon states to maintain some ambiguity about whether and why they might use nuclear weapons first—as the United States currently does.

Declaring a no-first-use policy could also undermine the credibility of the nuclear umbrella that the United States extends to its partners, and this could lead allies to produce nuclear weapons of their own. Japan, if it decides to produce nuclear weapons, has both the technology and the fissile material to do so easily. South Korea, with its strong technology base and its large civilian nuclear energy sector, is also eminently capable of developing nuclear weapons. If such scenarios play out—if allies began to doubt US security assurances—no-first-use would contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and undermine efforts to eliminate them.

As already mentioned, some US allies in Southeast Asia harbor concerns about China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. But the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would likely welcome a US no-first-use policy as a step toward establishing Southeast Asia as the true nuclear-weapon-free zone that was envisioned in the 1995 Treaty of Bangkok. The treaty, unfortunately, has not yet been fully realized because the five recognized nuclear weapon states haven't agreed to its associated protocol. Without the protocol, the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone remains merely an idea on a piece of paper.


No-first use would only embolden China

When President Barak Obama's second term ends in four months, how will he be remembered? As the first African-American president, certainly. But his legacy will also include consequential achievements such as overseeing an economic recovery and expanding access to health care. He'll be remembered for his efforts to slow climate change and, in foreign policy, his pivot to Asia. But another major initiative is reportedly under consideration at the White House—the declaration of a nuclear no-first-use policy.

Nuclear disarmament has been a top priority of Obama's presidency. In April 2009, when Obama had been in office less than three months, he delivered his inspiring Prague speech—in which he pledged to launch a new era of nuclear disarmament and declared "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Six months later he won the Nobel Peace Prize, partly on account of his utopian vision for, and commitment to, a nuclear-free world.

In the years since, Obama has devoted considerable effort to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. He oversaw negotiations with Russia toward the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and won confirmation for the treaty in the US Senate. He initiated the Nuclear Security Summit process. He led the United States and other powers in intense negotiations that succeeded in dissuading Iran from developing nuclear arms—even if the international community, despite imposing harsh sanctions on Pyongyang, has so far been unable to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Does Obama feel morally obligated to pursue nuclear disarmament because the United States is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in wartime? Perhaps—in May he became the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima since the city was destroyed by an atom bomb in 1945. Critics can question President Truman's decision to drop the bomb. What can't be questioned is that Truman acted out of an imperative to save American lives and win the war. In any event, though the United States hasn't used nuclear weapons since 1945, it has still relied on them to deter aggression, defend allies, and preserve strategic interests.

President Dwight Eisenhower, in his memoir Mandate for Change 1953–1956, wrote that China's accession to the armistice ending the Korean War was due in part to hints by Washington that it might use nuclear weapons against military targets in China. Likewise, during the Taiwan Strait crises in the 1950s, Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles publicly warned Beijing that the United States might use tactical nuclear weapons to forestall a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

President George W. Bush, in his memoir Decision Points, recalled his futile efforts to gain Chinese President Jiang Zemin's cooperation in efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program. In February 2003, Bush warned Jiang that "if we could not solve the problem diplomatically, I would have to consider a military strike against North Korea." Jiang and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il took Bush's threat of force seriously. Six months later, the first round of six-party talks over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program got under way in Beijing.

These are examples of the United States showing determination to use its overwhelming military power, perhaps including nuclear arms, to defend its interests and allies. A US nuclear no-first-use pledge, however, would squander an important piece of Washington's power. It would limit strategic options, undermine the credibility of Washington's promises to defend allies (South Korea in particular would be worried), and reduce US ability to deter aggression. All in all, it would be a gross strategic mistake.

To be sure, China has declared a no-first-use policy, and has demanded that other nuclear powers make the same commitment. But Beijing's own no-first-use policy may be under reconsideration. In 2005, General Zhu Chenghu of China's National Defense University made worldwide headlines when he warned that if the United States intervened in a military conflict over Taiwan, China would launch nuclear attacks on US cities. "We are ready to sacrifice all cities east of Xian," Gen. Zhu claimed. "Of course, the Americans must be prepared for hundreds of their cities to be destroyed." When a reporter raised the issue of China's no-first-use policy, Zhu said "the policy may change"—and asserted that it applies in any case only to conflicts between China and non-nuclear states. US officials were incensed over the general's brazen threat to use nuclear weapons first against US cities.

China is by no means a status quo power. Rather, it seeks to change the international order. It is contesting US political and military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific and challenging the post–World War II Pax Americana. For years China has been substantially modernizing and expanding its conventional and nuclear military forces, and has used its overwhelming capabilities to compel smaller neighbors to settle disputes on Beijing's terms. Moreover, China has built up its anti-access and area-denial capabilities—hoping to deter, delay, and defeat US intervention.

It would be extremely unwise for President Obama to proclaim a nuclear no-first-use policy. Chinese leader Xi Jinping would construe it as a sign of US military decline, and he would only be emboldened to pursue China's dream of supplanting the United States as the world's superpower.


No insurmountable hurdles to no-first-use

President Obama's deliberations over whether to declare a no-first-use policy for US nuclear weapons have polarized opinion across a spectrum of policy and security specialists. Opponents of the shift argue that a no-first-use policy would frighten US allies (especially South Korea and Japan), indicate weakness (at least in the eyes of Russia, China, and North Korea), and degrade Washington's ability to deter potential adversaries. Proponents argue that no-first-use would contribute to the predictability of Washington's nuclear posture—earning credibility for US efforts to make the world a safer place while not affecting allies' confidence in US extended deterrence. Now, in the aftermath of North Korea's fifth nuclear test—Pyongyang's most powerful test so far—chances seem dim that Obama will institute a no-first-use policy. Still, the possible implications in East and Southeast Asia of a US no-first-use policy are well worth examining.

It bears saying at the outset that the security repercussions of a no-first-use policy would be greater in East Asia than in Southeast Asia. Such a policy's impact in East Asia would entail the perceptions, attitudes, and reactions of Russia, China, and North Korea—three nuclear-armed states—as well as Japan and South Korea—two countries technologically capable of producing nuclear weapons.

Russia and China, the major nuclear powers in the region, would likely welcome a US no-first-use policy. It would serve their interests well (or at least they would have nothing to lose from it). But despite what some have argued, Moscow and Beijing would not interpret a US policy shift as a signal of weakness. They fully understand the damage that the US military is capable of inflicting on enemies without the first use of nuclear weapons. Neither Russia nor China would underestimate US military power just because of a no-first-use policy, and therefore they wouldn't be tempted to behave more assertively or to undermine US interests in East Asia. In short, a US no-first-use policy would result in no additional tensions or security threats among the United States, Russia, and China.

North Korea, on the other hand, could pose a problem. When Pyongyang conducts repeated nuclear tests in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and international sanctions, it clearly demonstrates that it does not care about its neighbors' security concerns. And if Washington now declares that it will never launch a nuclear first strike, Pyongyang might feel emboldened to press ahead even harder with its own nuclear weapons program. The grave danger in that case would be a snowball effect—that Pyongyang's intensified nuclear ambitions would heighten insecurity among North Korea's neighbors and cause them to take countermeasures, such as depending even more on the United States for protection. This would likely invite additional tensions in these nations' relationships with North Korea, and perhaps with China and Russia, causing them in turn to devote even more resources to their militaries. Unfortunately, Pyongyang regards fear in South Korea and Japan as desirable; fear provides the North more negotiating power. So to the extent that a US no-first-use policy produced insecurity in Seoul and Tokyo, North Korea would be the biggest beneficiary, and could become a major player in East Asian security.

Japan and South Korea would seem to be the East Asian countries most affected by a US no-first-use policy. Their security relies to a large extent on US military protection—including the nuclear umbrella, which provides deterrence first against North Korea and second against China and Russia. But the notion that Tokyo and Seoul have weak militaries is simply incorrect. To the contrary, their militaries are among the best equipped and most advanced forces in Asia. During a conventional armed conflict or war, either Japan or South Korea could deal effectively with any potential enemy in East Asia, and perhaps Japan and South Korea's lack of nuclear weapons is all that prevents them from being considered among the most powerful countries in the world—politically, economically, and, yes, militarily. So Washington's extended nuclear deterrence relieves Japan and South Korea from worry about nuclear threats. They can handle other threats on their own.

Still, with an ambitious and nuclear-armed North Korea next door, Tokyo and Seoul might see a US no-first-use policy as a valid cause for concern. But there would be no legitimate reason for them to develop their own nuclear weapons—as long as US extended deterrence remained in place, no-first-use would do nothing to increase the chances of a North Korean nuclear attack. Rather, Tokyo and Seoul's security concerns would increase if a US no-first-use policy upset the region's nuclear balance and caused the region's nuclear powers to behave antagonistically toward each other. But there's little evidence to suggest that outcome.

Looking south. If Obama institutes a no-first-use policy, the effects in Southeast Asia will be minimal. The region has been established as a nuclear-weapon-free zone since 1995. Countries in the region adhere to the major international nonproliferation treaties. They supported the Nuclear Security Summit process (even if not all of them attended the summits).

In the bilateral relations of Southeast Asian nations with the United States, China, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan, no serious security issues exist—except perhaps, in China's case, the flashpoint of the South China Sea. None of the six countries has ever announced that it has targeted Southeast Asian nations with nuclear weapons and none of them today constitutes a nuclear threat to Southeast Asia. No Southeast Asian nation receives US extended deterrence—not even the Philippines and Thailand, Washington's major non-NATO allies in the region.

Simply put, a US no-first-use policy would introduce no security problems in the region, and Southeast Asian countries would welcome this policy shift. But Southeast Asian countries would encourage Washington to accede to the Protocol of the Treaty of Bangkok, thereby pledging to honor the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone.

In East and Southeast Asia, the negative security impacts of a US no-first-use policy would be easily outweighed by the security benefits. Obama won't likely institute no-first-use, but here's hoping that he does.


Round 2

Time is not right for US no-first-use

Even if you favor a US nuclear no-first-use policy, you'll likely admit that such a policy could have negative security repercussions in Asia. So it is in this roundtable: My roundtable colleague Ta Minh Tuan, who hopes that Barack Obama will institute no-first-use, recognizes that such a shift could embolden Kim Jong-un to press ahead even harder with North Korea's nuclear arms program and to undertake additional provocative actions.

But what if no-first-use encouraged Kim, free from the fear of nuclear retaliation, to mount a conventional attack against South Korea? This is just the sort of scenario that causes some US security experts to hope that the Obama administration does not adopt a "sole purpose" policy for Washington's nuclear arsenal. The administration, with its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, already moved closer to renouncing the use of nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack by an adversary. Moving further in that direction would not be wise at this point.

Any indication that the United States might be retreating from its nuclear guarantees would compel Japan and South Korea to take countermeasures—which would likely extend beyond the deepening dependence on US protection that Ta discussed in Round One. Rather, Tokyo and Seoul might well go nuclear themselves. This would represent a worst-case scenario—two additional cases of the very nuclear proliferation that Washington works so hard to prevent.

Ta does admit that Japan and South Korea, "with an ambitious and nuclear-armed North Korea next door," would have valid reasons for concern about a US no-first-use policy. But then he asserts that Tokyo and Seoul would have "no legitimate reason… to develop their own nuclear weapons—as long as US extended deterrence remained in place." This is a bit cavalier. Ta may be a true believer in the notion that, overall, US no-first-use would benefit regional peace and security. But he underestimates the alarm with which Japan and South Korea might view no-first-use.

Ta also largely ignores a major Asian security problem that no-first-use could aggravate: China's claim of sovereignty over nearly all the South China Sea. Beijing's land reclamation projects, and its militarization of reefs and shoals in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, have strengthened China's military capacity in contested waters—and have also alarmed the United States, Japan, and most Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, Vietnam, and Singapore. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued a ruling in July that legally repudiated China's claim of sovereignty and its land reclamation projects, but Beijing has rejected the verdict. It is persisting in its plan to project power across the South China Sea by reclaiming (and building an air strip on) Scarborough Shoal, which is only 140 miles from Manila.

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has explicitly warned Beijing of countermeasures if China goes ahead with such measures. In recent months the United States has taken muscular measures such as sending aircraft carrier battle groups—in defense of the principle of freedom of navigation—on close passes by China's artificial islands. China's ambitions and its increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas have become a focus of rising tensions between China and the United States (as well as Washington's regional allies). In such a geostrategic context, no prudent US leader can afford the luxury of initiating a nuclear no-first-use policy.


For no-first-use, universality or nothing

My good friend Ta Minh Tuan hopes that Barack Obama will institute a nuclear no-first-use policy. I hope otherwise. In fact, I'd strongly recommend that the United States never renounce the first use of nuclear weapons.

Ta acknowledges some of the negative implications that could accompany a US no-first-use policy. Pyongyang, he writes, might react to a no-first-use policy by "press[ing] ahead even harder with its own nuclear weapons program," leading to "grave danger" and to heightened tensions among nations such as South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. And what are the advantages of a no-first-use policy? Ta argues that Washington, by instituting no-first-use, would declare itself "a status quo power in Asia's nuclear affairs." But he identifies few other advantages. It seems clear to me that the dire possible outcomes of a no-first-use policy easily outweigh the positive possibilities. Why then hope that the policy is instituted?

In Ta's case, I believe that his support for a no-first-use policy is reflective of his own values and preferences—especially a strong conviction that nuclear weapons must never be used. I share his conviction. But the risk of nuclear weapons use is not meaningfully reduced when one nation institutes a no-first-use policy. Such policies can only make a valuable contribution if all nuclear-armed states, whether formally recognized or not, declare similar policies. That is, as long as any nuclear-armed state is willing to use nuclear weapons first, the chance remains that other states will at some point use their weapons in retaliatory strikes.

In the current international system, universal no-first-use declarations are all but impossible. Why would every state that develops nuclear weapons—devoting precious resources to a weapons program instead of to other important priorities—declare that it will never use nuclear weapons first, no matter the circumstances? A few nations may take that route—China, for example. But even China has given some signals in the last few years that its policy may change—and in any event, Beijing's no-first-use policy may never have been taken seriously around the world. (The United States on the other hand, as a nation with greater credibility, could undermine international security if it adopted no-first-use.) The point remains: It's difficult to imagine all nuclear-armed states renouncing the first use of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, as long as nuclear weapons remain in the world, the countries that possess these weapons should keep the nuclear card up their sleeves. As Parris Chang discussed in Round One, Washington has used the threat of force, nuclear or otherwise, not only to pursue US interests but also to keep or establish peace. It would be foolish to capitulate that ability. I don't concur with Chang that China would interpret a US no-first-use declaration as a sign of military decline, but I do agree with his larger argument—that Obama would be quite unwise to institute a no-first-use policy.

I don't consider myself a strict realist. But on this issue, pragmatism dictates that the United States, assuming it maintains a nuclear arsenal, should never declare a no-first-use policy.


No-first-use: No reason to panic

After Barack Obama's declaration of a US nuclear no-first-use policy, Washington's security guarantees are suddenly questioned throughout Asia. Tokyo and Seoul consider developing their own nuclear deterrents. Beijing feels emboldened to pursue its territorial claims more aggressively. The same goes for Pyongyang and its nuclear weapons program.

This is the scenario that my roundtable colleague Raymund Jose G. Quilop advanced in Round One. Parris Chang advanced a limited version of the same argument. I would argue that there is no reason whatsoever to fear such a scenario.

First, all nations are bound by international commitments, and world leaders' strategic security calculations are based on a certain level of trust that other nations will honor their vows. Where Washington is concerned, such trust is well-founded. The United States has established a good track record of keeping its word over the decades. This is part of the reason that Washington has occupied center stage in international affairs since World War II. It is very hard to find grounds on which to judge the United States an untrustworthy ally.

So what would Washington's allies in East Asia conclude about US trustworthiness if Obama declared a no-first-use policy? Would they develop doubts about US extended nuclear deterrence if deterrence no longer included the possibility of a nuclear first strike? Rest assured—nations such as South Korea and Japan aren't naïve enough to base their security on nuclear first strikes by the United States. What's actually important to them is Washington's respect for its bilateral and multilateral security treaties, as well as Washington's readiness to take immediate action when necessary. A no-first-use policy would not affect in any way Washington's pledges to protect its treaty allies. It wouldn't affect Washington's nuclear umbrella, its conventional power, or the exercise of its international standing.

Nor would a nuclear no-first-use policy embolden Beijing to behave more aggressively. Today, despite the ambiguity about first use in US nuclear doctrine, China already behaves confidently in Northeast Asia and the South China Sea. Beijing clearly does not view the possibility of a US first strike as a deterrent to its current actions. So why should removing that possibility cause China to act more assertively? Beijing would gain nothing from presenting itself as a greater threat to the United States, Washington's Asian allies, and East Asian security. No evidence suggests that Beijing would opt for an antagonistic response to the declaration of a no-first-use policy.

In Pyongyang, calculations would be similar in some ways. North Korea's provocations over the years have borne little relation to US nuclear deterrence policy. Rather, US deterrence has proved a failure insofar as it has not prevented North Korea from developing and testing nuclear weapons. To put it another way, North Korea’s leaders are not scared of US nuclear deterrence. If they decide to behave more aggressively, they certainly have the means to do so. It's just that responding aggressively to a US no-first-use declaration would deliver no benefit to the North Koreans.

To the contrary, a no-first-use declaration might demonstrate to Pyongyang that the United States had no intention of overthrowing the North Korean regime (a matter of utmost concern to North Korea's leaders). And even if leaders in North Korea did not entirely trust a US no-first-use policy, at least the pressure on them to maximize their nuclear preparedness would be relieved. The same might be true of leaders in Beijing.

In short, no player in East Asia or Southeast Asia would profit by attempting to exploit a US no-first-use policy. Instead, nations would perceive the policy itself as beneficial—Washington would have declared itself a status quo power in Asia's nuclear affairs and the region as whole would become more secure. No one in East or Southeast Asia has any good reason to stir up the region's already troubled waters.


Round 3

No-first-use isn’t broken, so don’t fix it

As time ticks away on President Barack Obama's final term—and as Donald Trump prepares to assume the presidency—can Obama be said to have made adequate progress on his commitment, delivered in Prague in 2009, "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons?" To be sure, his efforts toward disarmament have been considerable. In 2010, the Defense Department's Nuclear Posture Review reduced the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy; ruled out the development of new nuclear warheads; and narrowed the contingencies under which Washington would ever use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. For a while there was talk that Obama would push further, in particular by declaring a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons. That now seems unlikely. But if he had taken that step—or if any president in the reasonably near future takes that step—would such a policy "qualify as a serious confidence-building measure and a step toward a more peaceful world," as my roundtable partner Ta Minh Tuan believes?

Not according to US allies such as Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and France, all of which have informed the Obama Administration that they would consider a no-first-use policy detrimental to their security. Leading politicians in Seoul are alarmed by no-first-use, and some have broached the idea that South Korea should develop its own nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, during a US National Security Council meeting in July, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly warned that a no-first-use declaration would alarm US allies, undercut Washington's credibility, and send a message of weakness abroad.

I wrote in Round One that President Dwight Eisenhower relied on the threat of nuclear weapons to forestall an invasion of Taiwan by Communist China. This threat helped bring about a cease-fire in the Taiwan Strait that has held since the 1950s. But Beijing's goal of dominating and eventually annexing Taiwan remains unchanged. In the past few decades, China has substantially modernized and expanded its conventional and nuclear military forces. In recent years it has greatly boosted its military capabilities in the South China Sea in order to challenge US supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, China has developed advanced anti-access/area-denial capabilities that could inflict severe damage on US forces. These capabilities are intended in part to deter US intervention in a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

In Washington, some experts have called for a policy of accommodation with China—"meeting China halfway," or even abandoning Taiwan. These experts' rationale is that, due to China's immense growth in economic and military power, the price of defending Taiwan would be too high for the United States to pay. Against this backdrop, US adoption of a no-first-use policy would likely undermine confidence in Taipei that Washington would come to its aid in time of need. No-first-use would send a misleading signal that the United States no longer had the will to stand up to China. The hawkish Chinese leadership could be emboldened by perceived US weakness to engage in military adventures in Taiwan. The following infamous piece of history is relevant and instructive: When North Korean forces invaded the South in June 1950, neither Joseph Stalin nor Kim Il-sung expected US intervention—because less than six months before, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson had described a US defensive perimeter in the Western Pacific that conspicuously excluded Korea.

In March of this year, Obama repeated his Prague observation that "achieving the security and peace of a world without nuclear weapons will not happen quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime." He went on to say that "no one nation can realize [the] vision [of disarmament] alone. It must be the work of the world." Obama is fully aware that a policy as important and far-reaching as nuclear no-first-use requires broad bipartisan support at home. But Obama was unable to forge consensus on no-first-use even within his own party or administration.

As the American saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." For now, US nuclear ambiguity is a sound policy that doesn't need any fixing.


For nuclear weapons, self-interest rules

Yes, I have argued in this roundtable that Washington should not renounce the first use of nuclear weapons. But the crux of my argument is not—as my colleague Ta Minh Tuan suggests—that other countries wouldn't respond to a US no-first-use declaration with declarations of their own. Indeed, even if all nuclear-armed countries other than the United States decided to forgo first use on their own initiative, I would still argue that no-first-use made no sense for Washington. Renouncing first use would render the US nuclear arsenal useless and, as I wrote in Round One, it is pragmatic for "nuclear weapon states to maintain some ambiguity about whether and why they might use nuclear weapons first." That is the crux of my argument.

Ta is correct to point out that arms control agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty have been negotiated with the involvement of nuclear-armed countries—but he incorrectly suggests that nuclear-armed countries have participated in negotiations because of "international calls for reductions in nuclear risk." The truth is that nations with nuclear weapons have acted to enhance their own security—the very imperative that led them to develop nuclear weapons in the first place. Let's face it: States prioritize their own interests. Therefore, when powerful countries craft international agreements and allow themselves to be bound by them, their actions are anchored in a sense that doing so is beneficial to them.

Take the NPT. Non-nuclear weapon states indeed have reasons to participate in the treaty. But nuclear weapon states established the treaty to prevent other states from developing nuclear weapons—not to provide benefits to nations without nuclear weapons. The treaty confines possession of nuclear weapons to states that already had them when the treaty came into force; it gives nuclear weapon states an unfair advantage. Self-interest, is it not?

Self-interest explains why, though general nuclear disarmament is a pillar of the treaty, nuclear weapon states have not eliminated their weapons. To be sure, they have reduced their nuclear arsenals in some instances—but they have reduced their stockpiles only when other nations have agreed to do so and they perceived the mutual reductions as beneficial. Make no mistake, the reductions have never come under circumstances such as Ta proposes for no-first-use declarations—that one nation takes a disarmament action and hopes that others will simply follow suit.

A no-first-use policy should only be announced when other nations agree to make the same pronouncement (and as mentioned above, I would counsel the United States not to adopt no-first-use even in that case). For the United States, it would be sheer naiveté to adopt no-first-use and expect others to follow. Unless all members of the nuclear club agreed to no-first-use ahead of time, Washington could have no expectation that its commitment would be reciprocated by other nuclear-armed states. And it is naive to write, as Ta does, that the United States would be setting a "good example for other nuclear weapon states" if it renounced first use. The good example would not be followed.

Ta also goes wrong when he writes that a US no-first-use declaration would "increase US prestige." How so? Prestige comes from having nuclear weapons in the first place. Indeed, the desire for prestige is one of the factors that have induced states to develop these weapons.

Ta argues that the international system "depends on respect for and exercise of national commitments and international law." Indeed it does, insofar as respect for international law and national commitments is necessary for global peace and stability. Necessary—but insufficient. That's precisely the reason that states arm themselves. The more lethal the armament, the more leverage they gain from possessing it.


No-first-use: One step toward peace

Most nuclear weapons states haven't declared no-first-use policies. Achieving universal no-first-use appears impossible. So why should Washington renounce the first use of nuclear weapons?

This is the main argument advanced in Round Two by my roundtable colleague Raymund Jose G. Quilop. I would answer him with my own question: If, throughout the nuclear era, nuclear weapon states had always continued developing nuclear arms for their own security, ignoring international calls for reductions in nuclear risk, how could instruments such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (admittedly, not yet in force), START I, and START II ever have been negotiated? Without these treaties, the marked reductions in nuclear stockpiles that the world has witnessed over the last 30 years would never have come to pass.

Where a technology as destructive as nuclear weapons is concerned, someone must take the first step. Nations that sign on to a treaty such as the NPT do so in the belief that other nations will do likewise for the sake of international peace. Over the years, this attitude has largely been rewarded.

To be sure, countries such as North Korea, Israel, and Pakistan have refused to join (or have withdrawn from) some of the most important treaties. But what if Washington, Beijing, and Moscow withdrew from their international nuclear commitments on the grounds that these few nations remain unbound by the NPT? Should Washington, Beijing, and Moscow wait for universality before they place any limits on their nuclear activities—and if they did, what would the consequences be? In reality, these powers have played major roles in pushing for nonproliferation and limits on nuclear arsenals. If they had merely taken a wait-and-see attitude, there would be no major nuclear agreements at all.

So why must Washington wait for other nuclear weapon states to declare no-first-use policies in order to do so itself? A no-first-use declaration by a superpower such as the United States would only increase US prestige and would set a good example for other nuclear weapon states. Arguing in favor of US nuclear ambiguity only means accepting a chicken-or-the-egg status quo.

Parris Chang, meanwhile, argues that Tokyo and Seoul "might well go nuclear themselves" if the United States renounced the first use of nuclear weapons. But the international security system, including in East and Southeast Asia, does not rely on the nuclear weapon states' willingness to execute a first strike. It doesn't even rely on the use of nuclear weapons. Instead, the international security system depends on respect for and exercise of national commitments and international law. In addition, Washington's extended nuclear deterrence policy simply means that the United States is ready to use nuclear weapons to protect its allies if necessary. Extended deterrence might sometimes imply the first use of nuclear weapons, but in no sense does it guarantee first use. First use is not embedded in extended deterrence—and I do not believe that US allies such as Japan and South Korea are insisting that it be otherwise. First use or no-first-use—either way, it doesn't affect Washington's security commitments to its allies at all. No one in Japanese or South Korean policy-making circles could perceive a US no-first-use policy as, to quote Chang, an "indication that the United States might be retreating from its nuclear guarantees." Extended deterrence should not be confused with maintaining the possibility of first use; confusing the two leads to misleading conclusions. In the same vein, I perceive no tangible connection among no-first-use, Asia's territorial disputes, and—as Chang phrases it—China's "increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas."

A US no-first-use policy would not bring an end to the grave threat that nuclear weapons pose. But it would certainly qualify as a serious confidence-building measure and a step toward a more peaceful world.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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