For nuclear weapons, self-interest rules

By Raymund Jose G. Quilop, October 26, 2016

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.


Topics: Nuclear Weapons