On September 5, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration is weighing whether to adopt a so-called “no-first-use” nuclear doctrine. This would allow the United States to launch nuclear weapons only if the enemy deployed them first. Such a change would be a dramatic policy shift: Washington has always kept the option of a preemptive strike on the table.
Under President Obama, a no-first-use doctrine has been widely regarded as an idealistic policy for the United States—a noble, if controversial, step toward achieving his goal of “a world without nuclear weapons.” Through self-restraint, and the disavowal of a first strike, America could “escape the logic of fear,” as Obama said at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial last May. Indeed, conservatives have condemned the no-first-use pledge as another instance of typical liberal naiveté on defense matters, or of “ticking the boxes the far-Left long wanted ticked.” By removing the first-strike option, the argument goes, Washington will weaken America’s nuclear deterrent, embolden its enemies, and undermine allies like Japan that rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Even many of Obama’s top foreign-policy advisors are concerned by the potential security implications of this idea. Under a storm of pressure, the president may very well decide that no-first-use is a bridge too far.
But many of the arguments both for and against no-first-use misunderstand it: The policy reflects the power to set the rules of war, rather than some wayward pacifist ideal to end all war. Countries that issue no-first-use pledges boast strong conventional militaries. These states want to encourage a model of war where their army meets the enemy on a conventional battlefield with clearly defined rules—the kind of war, in other words, that they usually win. Nuclear weapons upend this model, because they help weaker actors, the North Koreas and Pakistans of the world, produce extraordinary destruction, level the playing field, and cast victory into doubt. Therefore, a no-first-use pledge could potentially reinforce a powerful state’s strategic advantage by discouraging other countries from developing nuclear arsenals, and by dissuading nuclear-armed countries from pushing the button. This would happen with the assurance that America would not fire first—thereby keeping war safely bound and safely winnable, on the powerful state’s terms.
The same logic helps explain why the United States is far more concerned if 1,000 Syrians die from chemical weapons than if 100,000 Syrians die from guns and explosives. Normalizing the use of chemical weapons around the world is not in the U.S. strategic interest because Washington wants to keep conflict in its comfort zone of conventional warfare. If U.S. officials concluded that chemical weapons were, in fact, of critical strategic value, they would likely soon abandon their moral reservations over their use.
Countries that contemplate or introduce a no-first-use policy are almost always strong states that enjoy a conventional-weapons edge. Since its first nuclear test in 1964, China has repeatedly declared that it “undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.” It’s no coincidence that China is the most powerful East Asian country, and would hold the advantage in any conventional war with South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, or Taiwan (assuming, of course, that the United States stayed out). The spread of nuclear weapons in East Asia would diminish China’s strategic advantage; therefore, Beijing seeks to prevent this outcome with a no-first-use policy.
Meanwhile, India announced in 1999 that it “will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.” In 2003, India qualified its no-first-use pledge by stating, “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.” Again, it’s no coincidence that India is very likely to prevail over Pakistan in a future conventional war. India has a history of winning previous contests, and currently spends about $50 billion per year on defense compared to Pakistan’s $9.5 billion. New Delhi can safely issue a no-first-use pledge in the hope of keeping the strategic terrain favorable.
Last month, General James E. Cartwright, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, and Bruce G. Blair, former Minuteman launch officer, co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times in favor of a U.S. no-first-use policy. They showed, explicitly, how power undergirds the proposed doctrine. “Our nonnuclear strength, including economic and diplomatic power, our alliances, our conventional and cyber weaponry and our technological advantages, constitute a global military juggernaut unmatched in history. The United States simply does not need nuclear weapons to defend its own and its allies’ vital interests, as long as our adversaries refrain from their use.”
By contrast, weak states don’t even think about a no-first-use policy. Indeed, threatening to push the button early in a conflict is the basis of their deterrent plan. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had conventional superiority in Europe, the United States and its NATO allies intended to escalate to nuclear war if the Red Army launched an invasion. Similarly, today, Pakistan explicitly threatens to retaliate with nuclear weapons if it is ever attacked—even through a conventional invasion.
Viewed through a strategic—and perhaps more cynical—lens, the no-first-use doctrine also has a huge credibility problem. For the U.S. pledge to truly matter, a president who otherwise favors a nuclear first strike would have to decide not to press the button because of this policy. But in an extreme national crisis—one involving, say, North Korean nuclear missiles—a president is unlikely to feel bound by America’s former assurance. After all, if a country is willing to use nuclear weapons, it’s also willing to break a promise.
Champions and critics of no-first-use often cast it as a principled policy and a revolutionary step, for good or for ill. But the idealistic symbolism of no-first-use betrays an underlying reality. Disavowing a first strike is a luxury afforded to the strong, and they play this card in the hope of strategic benefit. If Obama made a dramatic announcement of no-first-use, it would probably have less impact than people think because other countries wouldn’t follow suit, especially if they’re weak. And, in any case, the promise may be meaningless because no one can predict a president’s calculus when staring down a nuclear holocaust. No-first-use is the policy of Goliath, not Gandhi.