Since the United States’ first use of the atomic bomb in August 1945, nuclear weapons have threatened the survival of humanity. In recent years, some supporters of nuclear de-escalation have proposed a No First Use (N.F.U.) policy, which would require the U.S. to refrain from using nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack. Some, like presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, believe that N.F.U. would reduce the risk of nuclear war; others, like former Secretary of State John Kerry, think that it would destabilize an already delicate global situation. Should the U.S. implement a No First Use policy?
Just as a strong smell disappears after you become desensitized to it, we rarely think about nuclear war in our daily lives, even though it’s still a threat. Every so often, North Korea will resume nuclear tests, and the State Department will make a fuss. Or headlines will proclaim that Iran is rebuilding its nuclear stockpiles, and we will worry for a moment before continuing with our lives. It’s not that we don’t know that nuclear war is dangerous — it’s just too alarming to always keep in mind. But somewhere, deep down, we all know that one bad decision by a power-drunk head of state could lead to the apocalypse.
That head of state, by the way, need not run a rogue nation or some repressive dictatorship. In the U.S., the president, as commander-in-chief, has sole control over the use of nuclear weapons. The president can fire them for any reason, at any time, anywhere. Placing control in the president’s hands, rather than the military’s, was a good choice made by presidents over the years — we need civilian control over the most dangerous weapon ever invented. But allowing the use of nuclear weapons with no restrictions by any one person, even an elected president, is a dangerous mistake.
For instance, every presidential administration since Bill Clinton’s has drafted a nuclear plan, called the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (N.P.R.), detailing the circumstances in which nuclear strikes might be authorized. Of course, these documents are administrative guidelines rather than absolute rules — they have no real legal authority. However, they’re useful for taking the temperature of different administrations.
President Barack Obama’s 2010 N.P.R. declared that the “fundamental role” of nuclear weapons was to respond to nuclear attacks and that the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states complying with non-proliferation. However, it left open the possibility that we would use nuclear weapons in response to conventional attacks, escalating conventional warfare into armageddon.
Even worse, President Donald Trump’s 2018 N.P.R. explicitly calls for a nuclear response to strategic non-nuclear attacks, such as a cyberattack against our infrastructure or conventional attacks against command-and-control systems.
Given the operating assumption of nuclear weapons — that they actually deter nuclear attack through mutually-assured destruction — any use of a nuclear bomb in response to a conventional or cyberattack would be devastating.
Say, for instance, that some hacking group connected to the Russian government cripples the American electrical grid on election day. Our current administration has stated publicly that it might use nuclear weapons to respond, perhaps bombing critical Russian infrastructure and going tit for tat. When those launches are detected, it’s almost certain that Russia would respond in kind, with more nuclear weapons aimed at us and our allies — which would only lead to more launches in response. A non-nuclear conflict — like hacking or conventional warfare — should never be escalated into nuclear war. We have the tools to respond in kind without quite literally going nuclear.
Nuclear weapons always end in disaster unless they aren’t used, but our nuclear policies make that possibility increasingly unlikely. Rather than trusting our presidents to make decisions about when to use nuclear weapons, we should implement a No First Use policy. We must pledge to never use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack, and we need to enforce that proclamation with federal law.
Such a policy wouldn’t lessen our nuclear arsenal’s deterrence power, since it would allow us to use nuclear weapons in response to nuclear launches. Unfortunately, it also wouldn’t diminish the possibility of nuclear armageddon initiated by another nuclear power — only diplomacy can accomplish that. However, it would ensure that we don’t lead the world into nuclear midnight. N.F.U. means the United States would never start a nuclear war while maintaining our defensive nuclear capabilities.
President Harry Truman placed the control of nuclear weapons firmly under civilian control in response to fears that the military would use them too readily. It’s time to take the next step, moving nuclear policy-making power from the presidency to Congress except in cases of a nuclear emergency.
Law is not perfect, and I don’t have much faith in the ability of federal law to constrain a determined president. However, the president only gives the order; regular Americans turn the keys and push the button. If we require that they see evidence of a nuclear attack before launches can proceed, we eliminate the chance that a single person can launch our nuclear arsenal unprovoked.
Now is not the time to increase the probability of nuclear war. Instead, we should progressively eliminate the possibility of ever using nuclear weapons. Over the decades, we’ve led the world nearer and nearer to the rocks of nuclear destruction, ears tuned to the siren call of war. Other countries have followed our lead, and though we say we want to avoid nuclear war, our nuclear policy says the opposite. It’s time to turn from the rocks and sail out of the storm.
It’s hard to overstate the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. When faced with a perilous situation, it’s tempting to make sudden policy changes in an attempt to swerve away from danger. Yet any change to the United States’ decades-long nuclear policy should be carefully considered.
As my co-columnist shared above, the United States does not currently have an N.F.U.. To be clear, U.S. policy has also never laid out a situation where it guarantees to use nuclear weapons. Instead of drawing a red line, current policy is flexible, able to exert pressure without actually having to resort to the unthinkable option of nuclear weapons.
The current status quo has risks aplenty, but dramatic and unilateral shifts to nuclear policy have the potential to cause unforeseen outcomes. Unforeseen outcomes, we can all agree, are an unacceptable risk in our fragile nuclear climate.
The U.S. nuclear policy has allowed numerous countries to protect themselves under the so-called “nuclear umbrella.” These states are relatively secure from invasion because the U.S. hasn’t ruled out using nuclear weapons to protect them. Many of these states, such as those in the Baltics, are small and isolated — conventional weapons would do little to defend them against their large and hostile neighbors, so a nuclear deterrent is necessary. Of course, there is no real chance that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons to defend the Baltics, but since there is no definitive promise not to, aggression is discouraged. The benefit of deterrence is that it discourages conflict without actually requiring any particular action on the part of the U.S.
So what would happen to this carefully-constructed system if the U.S. adopted an N.F.U. policy? Simply stated, it would fall apart.
When President Obama considered adopting the policy, he received major backlash from both his advisors and U.S. allies like Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. All of these countries are under geopolitical threat, but because of the nuclear umbrella, none have nuclear weapons of their own. An N.F.U. would render them more vulnerable to conventional invasion from their neighbors. Lacking any nuclear protection from the U.S., and noticing the global military withdrawal by the US, these countries would feel enormous pressure to create their own nuclear arsenals. Ironically, an N.F.U. policy might substantially increase the number of nuclear countries and nuclear warheads in the world. That outcome could be disastrous.
Moreover, an N.F.U. policy would increase the risk of conflict around the globe. By its very nature, an N.F.U. guarantees that conventional warfare would not trigger a nuclear response. But without the threat of nuclear war, conventional war has one less deterrent. As a result, the unprecedented decades of relative international peace which we have enjoyed (in part because of nuclear weapons) would be endangered. More conventional conflicts would, in turn, increase tensions between nations. An unwise exchange of nuclear weapons is an unwelcome possibility during times of peace, but more conventional warfare makes that fateful transition far easier.
The weaker deterrence of conventional conflict caused by N.F.U. renders both the U.S. and its allies vulnerable to new, terrible weapons. Cyber, chemical and biological warfare have all advanced substantially in recent years. A single cyberattack could cripple the United States in a matter of minutes. The recent pandemic has shown that disease remains a huge threat in the modern world. A bioweapon has the potential to kill many millions more than a nuclear attack. An N.F.U. policy gives the U.S. no sure way to deter these attacks without undertaking the development of more destructive cyber and bioweapons itself, a result none of us want.
What’s more, N.F.U. offers few safeguards to prevent a nuclear worst-case scenario. Past experience shows that the executive branch freely ignores law during its military pursuits. Add in the inherent fear and paranoia of a nuclear crisis, and you have an explosive mix which an N.F.U. policy would do little to calm. If faced with a choice between risking nuclear destruction or breaking the law, the military and executive would trample over N.F.U. legislation every time. In the end, N.F.U. would maintain most of the risks of nuclear warfare while eliminating its beneficial deterrent effect.
For all these reasons, an N.F.U. policy would upset the delicate world balance and create more risks for both the U.S. and the world. It’s no wonder that Secretary of State John Kerry, lifelong anti-war activist and architect of the Iran Nuclear Deal, persuaded President Obama of its foolishness. In the words of national security expert and advisor Dr. Brad Roberts, it would “generate new dangers and new risks” while weakening deterrence.
Both I and my co-columnist want a future without the threat of nuclear warfare. But we need to focus on proven solutions, rather than unpredictable paper promises. For example, take nuclear disarmament treaties, wherein both sides agree to reduce their number of warheads. Unlike toothless promises, disarmament leaves a tangible effect. Since 1986, the world has dispensed with 84 percent of its nuclear warheads, largely because of disarmament treaties. These diplomatic agreements aren’t always easy to implement, but they have a proven record. N.F.U. helps us feel better about our current situation. Disarmament helps us change it in a reliable, undisruptive way.
I understand my co-columnist’s desire to find the easy way out of our current nuclear dilemma. When standing on a sheet of ice, it’s tempting to try to run away as quickly as possible, but in reality, only smooth and careful steps will bring us safely into a better world.