A recent article in the Washington Post disclosed the White House’s evident determination to implement new nuclear policies in the final months of the Obama presidency to add to his disarmament legacy. The president declared in his 2009 Prague speech his determination to seek the “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” However, one of the proposals being seriously considered is to declare “no first use” (NFU). This is unwise, inherently dangerous and could very well have the opposite effect by substantially weakening the ability of the United States and its allies to effectively deter aggression.
Proposals for NFU have been around for a long time. During the Cold War they were a recurring element of Soviet propaganda. Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, has rejected a no-first-use policy, no doubt because of its inherent unverifiability and the fact that it was a chimera. It was later discovered after the Soviet Union’s collapse that the Warsaw Pact, even though it enjoyed conventional superiority, had first-use operational war plans calling for the massive use of nuclear and chemical weapons on the first day of conflict with NATO forces.
Shortly after taking office, the Obama administration conducted a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in which it specifically rejected NFU primarily on the basis of a potentially devastating biological attack but also because the security environment was so precarious. If anything the situation is much more precarious today, particularly for our NATO allies facing intimidation and coercive tactics by a revanchist Russia. Likewise, our NATO allies are nervous over announcing a no first use policy in the face of Russian nuclear saber rattling—threatening first use of nuclear weapons in a conventional confrontation with NATO. Japan, understandably worried over the diminishment of the U.S. deterrence umbrella, has called for talks to voice their concerns. If the allies perceive such a shift of policy as a weakening of deterrence how could our adversaries, or the president for that matter, not?
When NATO reviewed its deterrence and defense posture (approved in 2012) change proponents then had the burden of proof of demonstrating how those proposals would bolster or enhance our deterrence posture. Likewise, the burden of showing how NFU enhancing us or our allies’ security rests with President Obama. Other than feel-good disarmament rhetoric, it is difficult to see how changing to a no-first-use policy will bolster deterrence. Instead, it is likely to put our allies at greater risk. Recent Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine and intimidation tactics by Russia and China against other allies underscore the complex new risks to peace and stability requiring an even more robust deterrence posture across the spectrum of conflict.
While the administration remains eager to constrain the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce their salience it has not asserted that NFU enhances our security, the sine qua non for any security policy. It is hard to see for the moment how Washington’s deeply vital interests are at all likely to be threatened by non-nuclear means that could not be countered in non-nuclear ways. But what if a truly vital interest were indeed about to be lost by non-nuclear means—a chemical and biological attack for example? The idea that a nuclear power would let itself be overwhelmed simply because of a no-first-use promise is patently absurd, hence its lack of credibility and diminishment of the current deterrence posture. A nuclear possessor state may decide that under the circumstances it preferred defeat to the risks of embarking upon nuclear action, but the NFU promise would likely not weigh all that heavily in that cost-benefit calculation.
Of course the no-first-use promise would also apply to our allies. Notwithstanding the fact—discounted in the NPR—that large-scale conventional aggression against NATO territory is highly unlikely today, the possibility of such a threat cannot now be ruled out. In addition to Russia, the security of the alliance remains subject to a wide variety of military risks, including those from weapons of mass destruction, which are multidirectional and difficult to predict.
Given the diversity of risks NATO, at its most recent summit in Warsaw, again reaffirmed the need to maintain the forces and strategy necessary to ensure credible and effective deterrence. NATO members agreed that this cannot be ensured by the alliance’s conventional forces alone. Herein lies another compelling reason to say “no” to no-first-use. Ruling out in advance the necessity for an aggressor to consider all of NATO’s political and military options of response would weaken deterrence by removing the uncertainty of NATO’s response.
Since the nature and scope of potential future conflicts cannot be predicted, NATO (and, up until now, the United States) does not predetermine its possible reaction to military attack of whatever ilk. It leaves the question open as to how we would respond to armed aggression, to be decided as and when such a situation materializes. Removing this uncertainty by embracing NFU would undercut NATO’s primary objective of war prevention and could make nuclear warfare seem a rational option.