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.