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Commentary | 6 April 2021

Mission Possible: Revisiting the No First Use of the nuclear weapon

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Carlo Trezza |Former Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Former Chairman of the Missile Technology Control Regime

NPT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Security Global Security ELN

Can the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons be approached through the instrument of nuclear doctrines, and in particular through the easily comprehensible concept of No First Use of nuclear weapons? The question, debated since the early days of the nuclear age, is topical today because in the coming months the Pentagon is expected to draft a nuclear posture review and President Biden could suggest that his Secretary of Defense address this delicate issue.

As Vice President, Biden closely followed the implications of nuclear doctrines. In 2017 he was quoted as saying that, given the US non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats, “it is hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary or make sense” and that “deterring, and, if necessary, retaliating against a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal”. The Biden presidential campaign website reiterated the same doctrine on “sole purpose”. The concept of “sole purpose” is similar – though not equivalent – to that of the NFU.

The concept of non-first use was widely debated under the Obama presidency and  eminent personalities including Senator Elizabeth Warren – who proposed a bill to Congress to endorse a no first use policy – and former Defense Secretary William Perry still strongly support its adoption. The Obama administration made notable progress in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the US defense strategy, including the commitment in the 2010 nuclear posture review to refrain from using nuclear weapons if attacked with chemical, biological or conventional weapons. However, it did not in the end adopt the NFU concept. Since then, the 2018 nuclear posture review under the Trump administration reversed this commitment and stated that US could consider the use of nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances” including “significant non-nuclear attacks” against the US, its allies and partners.

In 1995 the five NPT nuclear weapons states (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US) had already gone further than NFU by formally assuring non-nuclear countries that nuclear weapons would not be used against them at all. Of these five states, China, following its first nuclear test in 1964, declared that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons against any state, including nuclear states. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union believed it had conventional superiority in Europe, Moscow also proposed the adoption of the NFU concept. However, this position has subsequently been abandoned by the Russian Federation which now feels conventionally inferior to the West.

For their part, France and the United Kingdom have always been reluctant to adopt the NFU concept, although the sole purpose of their arsenals, given their limited capacity, can realistically only be that of deterrence. The UK has now said in its 2021 integrated defence review that it may in future review its commitment not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear state if the future threat of WMD or emerging technologies “with a comparable impact” “makes this necessary”.

Among the four de facto nuclear countries whose nuclear status is not recognized by the NPT (India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea), India has already joined China in adopting the NFU. In principle, at least, this would prevent a future conflict between these two Asian rivals from escalating into a nuclear war. Pakistan on the contrary feels unable to renounce the possibility of being the first to use nuclear weapons, given its conventional military inferiority vis a vis India.

The above precedents show that a wider adoption of the NFU concept by nuclear weapons states is not a mission impossible: some nuclear weapon countries are already on board. Supporters of NFU in the US believe that a no-first-use doctrine could be adopted unilaterally.

If the US were to include this doctrinal change in a fresh nuclear policy review, it would send a strong signal to other nuclear states that such a move is both possible and desirable. Carlo Trezza

It would help give new life to the upcoming NPT Review Conference, as a constructive step towards implementing the promises that all states including the five nuclear states have made under the NPT to negotiate in good faith on measures for nuclear disarmament. So far the recent lack of progress on nuclear disarmament has led many countries to question the credibility of the NPT and has given more momentum to the Treaty for the Prevention of all Nuclear Weapons.

This mission is worth pursuing: if all nuclear weapons states agreed not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, then in principle no nuclear war could break out.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr, US nuclear weapons test at Eniwetok in 1956, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.