No nukes? No—no first use

By Sinan Ülgen, October 25, 2014

In his final essay, Li Bin makes the case that delegitimizing nuclear weapons represents a promising alternative to disarmament initiatives that, with their focus on numerical controls, are probably doomed to failure. I don't agree that numerical limits on arsenals are doomed to failure—especially if disarmament's aim, as I wrote in Round One, is to approach but not reach "zero."

To buttress his views on numerical limits, Li discusses the failed Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. This treaty limited the number and size of warships that nations could maintain in their fleets, and it collapsed in the 1930s. Li writes that the treaty collapsed because "controlling numbers of warships didn't change attitudes toward warships." I disagree. The real reason the treaty failed was that it lacked a proper enforcement mechanism. Its failure says little about the disarmament and nonproliferation regime. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the International Atomic Energy Agency, and ultimately the UN Security Council provide the regime with institutional underpinnings for enforcement, and because of this the regime has managed to survive for several decades in the face of numerous challenges. With the participation of these institutions, limiting the size of nuclear arsenals on a multilateral basis is indeed a viable proposition (though a code of transparency would also be required, one that allowed nuclear weapon states to monitor one another's compliance with agreements).

I continue to believe that, due to the nature of the world's security threats and the character of established security architectures on both the global and regional levels, total abolition of nuclear weapons is a far-fetched objective. But here's something that can be achieved: a universal commitment by nuclear weapon states not to use these weapons first. Today, China espouses a no-first-use policy. The United States foreswears first use against non-nuclear weapon states that are parties to the NPT and are in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations—though Washington places some restrictions on that commitment. Russia does not maintain a no-first-use policy. This is a complicated picture, and prevailing on all nuclear weapon states to adopt no-first-use policies would be challenging. Ultimately, though, the goal is achievable. If every nuclear-armed state adopted an unconditional no-first-use policy, the risk of nuclear war would be greatly reduced.

The world came to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that was more than 50 years ago. Nuclear weapons haven't been used in conflict since 1945. By now, the record suggests that nations have learned to manage these terrible weapons. They have adapted their security concepts to the realities of the nuclear era, developing first the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and then extended deterrence. The system that exists may not be desirable—a residual risk of nuclear warfare persists—but the system has proven itself to work. As this roundtable nears its end, I remain unconvinced by my colleagues' arguments that abolition of nuclear weapons would produce a safer world than exists today. Abolition is a laudable objective in many ways. The problem is that there is no realistic way of achieving it—or of remaining safe once it is achieved.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons