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Commentary | 22 September 2016

Why not no-first-use

Image of Franklin C. Miller

Franklin C. Miller |Principal, Scowcroft Group and former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush

Image of Keith B. Payne

Keith B. Payne |Professor, Missouri State University and former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense

Deterrence Nuclear Weapons Russia Russia-West Relations Transatlantic relations United States Euro-Atlantic Security Global Security

Much has been written in recent months, including in these pages, about the purported benefits of the United States adopting a policy of nuclear no-first-use (NFU). Let us be clear at the outset: US adoption of NFU would produce no tangible benefits, while likely undercutting deterrence of attack against NATO, weakening allies’ confidence in the US and spurring nuclear proliferation.

Based on evidence from the past seven decades, the US nuclear deterrent helps deter war and safeguard stability by compelling potential aggressors to consider the US nuclear deterrent in any of their prospective plans to attack us or our allies. A US NFU pledge now would instead encourage aggressors to calculate that they need not fear the US nuclear deterrent in response to their potential massive first-use of conventional forces, or chemical and biological weapons. NFU, therefore, would threaten the credibility of US deterrence and stability.

Taking a step that would degrade the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent might have been acceptable to some in the benign post-Cold War period; but we no longer live in benign times. Russia and China have expressed the goal of overturning the existing international order. They are rapidly expanding their military capabilities, including nuclear, pursuing aggressive, expansionist policies in Europe and Asia respectively, and issuing explicit nuclear threats to US allies in the process. Given these contemporary realities and the stakes involved, our goal should be to maintain the most effective deterrent possible, not to adopt policies that threaten to ease aggressors’ calculations of risk regarding their possible massive first-use of force.

US adoption of NFU would also shake allied confidence in US security guarantees to them. In fact, US allies Japan, South Korea, Great Britain, and France have informed Washington that a NFU policy would be detrimental to their security. Many US allies rely on a credible US nuclear deterrence “umbrella” for their security. A US NFU policy would compel some to take steps to mitigate its possible degradation of the US nuclear deterrent. One avenue would be the acquisition or creation of their own independent nuclear weapons. Polls already reveal considerable South Korean support for the development of nuclear weapons; US NFU would only increase that motivation. In short, NFU would likely increase the prospect for new nuclear powers and severely undercut the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Proponents of NFU often assert that US and allied conventional forces alone could ultimately defeat an opponent’s massive use of military force, including advanced conventional weapons, and chemical and biological weapons—and thereby claim that the US nuclear deterrent threat is unnecessary for this purpose.

This presumption of Western military dominance is questionable in some key geographic areas. For example, Russia is militarily superior to NATO at every point along the common borders it shares with NATO states. More importantly, arguing that Western conventional force dominance reduces the value of nuclear deterrence confuses the distinction between deterrence and war-fighting. We should want to deter an opponent’s massive use of force from ever taking place, and not be compelled to wage war, even a winning non-nuclear war, in order to recover lost territories. Such a war would cause unprecedented levels of death and destruction wherever it is fought, which is why every Democratic and Republican administration for seven decades has favored effective deterrence and rejected NFU, and why key US allies also strongly oppose it.

NFU advocates often claim that US NFU adoption would lead other nuclear powers to similarly do so, and thus contribute to deterrence stability. In truth, however, there is zero evidence that US NFU adoption would lead others to mimic the United States. The idea that the rest of the world follows the United States in this way is outdated, arrogant, and contrary to considerable evidence. The utter failure of President Obama’s Prague Agenda to convince Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, or other nuclear powers to reduce the role nuclear weapons play in their respective security policies is a powerful testament to this fact.

Russia by its own open statements is committed to coercive and unambiguous nuclear first-use threats and possible employment to support an expansionist agenda in Europe—which means it hardly would follow a US NFU agenda. Indeed, a senior Russian official recently responded to US arms control overtures by observing that Russian nuclear policies are driven strictly by Russian security needs, not by “mythical universal human values.” Other nuclear powers similarly pursue their own paths and “do not seek to emulate” the United States.

In 2009, the bipartisan US Congressional Strategic Posture Commission concluded that the United States should not adopt NFU. In 2010, the Obama administration’s own Nuclear Posture Review reached the same conclusion. Since then, the international security situation has deteriorated dramatically. US adoption of NFU now would only reflect wilful US detachment from this global reality and would be perceived as such by friends and foes alike. Now is not the time for idealistic US policies that so contradict reality and which would bring about outcomes precisely opposite of those claimed by NFU proponents.



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 challenges of our time.