The US is not going to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Allies who believe otherwise are attached to a fiction and a psychological crutch. But these allies have been badly spooked, first by Vladimir Putin and now by Donald Trump. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Russian salami-slicing elsewhere around its periphery has rightly worried NATO. Now Trump has made matters worse by suggesting means-testing for whether the US would come to the aid of NATO allies.
Because of the Putin-Trump tag team, jittery allies have become even more skittish about extended deterrence. The timing isn’t right for the US to adopt a no-first-use posture. Even now, however, it’s useful to acknowledge that substantive arguments against the US’ adopting a no-first-use posture are hackneyed and weak. The only argument that has weight is one of timing.
One argument against no first use is that it would send allies scrambling for the Bomb. This assumption, often propounded by defenders of nuclear orthodoxy, can’t be ruled out but seems far-fetched. Despite repeated fears expressed by critics of the Iran nuclear deal, no allied or friendly government now seeks the Bomb in the Middle East. If opponents of the deal can be prevented from interfering with its implementation, prospects for proliferation will be even less likely. Indeed, as Sandy Spector has noted, we now live in an exceptional period when no additional state seems intent on joining the nuclear club.
Other arguments against no first use are equally suspect. There’s no compelling evidence that the threat of first use has helped to deter war. Supporters of nuclear orthodoxy are on stronger ground in arguing that the possession of nuclear weapons – not their possible first use in warfare – has contributed to deterrence, but even here, their reasoning is weak. Having huge nuclear arsenals has helped to deter war between Washington and Moscow, but there have still been close calls, where the first use of a weapon by accident or a breakdown in the chain of command could have opened the gates of hell.
What’s more, first-use postures have not prevented two limited wars between nuclear-armed states (the Soviet Union vs. China and Pakistan vs. India). First-use postures have not changed the outcome of these wars; nor have they prevented dangerous crises. A no-first-use posture can help defuse crises. First-use postures make crises more dangerous.
Vestige of the Cold War
First-use postures are a vestige of dangerous practices during the Cold War when extreme measures were deemed necessary for credible deterrence. Back then, the US tested nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and maintained continuous combat patrols of nuclear-armed bombers. These dangerous practices ended many decades ago, but first-use postures linger. Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea rely heavily on them.
The US isn’t Russia, Pakistan or North Korea. The first use of nuclear weapons by a US president is a hypothetical, not a realistic military option. Every president will do her or his utmost to avoid crossing the nuclear threshold for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever provocation might prompt consideration of first use would pale in comparison to retaliating with a mushroom cloud. First use is also a hypothetical construct for US allies that want no part of nuclear detonations on their soil.
Nuclear deterrence works best in the abstract. It relies on ambiguity and uncertainty. The belief system built around nuclear deterrence implodes once the first mushroom cloud appears. Since one nuclear detonation is very likely to lead to the next, prospects for escalation control depend on no first use. Nuclear first use is not the answer to localised military contingencies in the Baltics, against China or on the Korean Peninsula, where US conventional military advantages cannot quickly be brought to bear. The reason is simple, yet fundamental: Actual, as opposed to hypothetical, first use kills nuclear deterrence.
A hypothetical first use option for the US provides comfort only to those allies willing to suspend disbelief. US allies enjoy the protection of a nuclear umbrella, but the first use of a nuclear weapon isn’t protective, because escalation control would rest on a hope and a prayer.
The US is taking practical steps to reassure allies with strategic modernisation programs, new battalions for NATO and theatre missile defences in Europe and Asia. Allies who continue to think these expensive steps are insufficient, and that the first use of a nuclear weapon remains crucial, are doing more harm than good. Worse, when reliance on the psychological crutch of first use becomes an enabling device for slackers, allies reinforce Trump’s dangerous views.
It would be nice to go cold turkey on nuclear weapons, the way we are advised to deal with dangerous personal addictions. But finding release from an addiction to nuclear weapons which also underpins US alliances takes time, steady effort, and conscious intent.
How, then, to deal with the timing problem?
I am most definitely not arguing to wait for the weakest-kneed US ally to raise its comfort level with no first use. Nor am I arguing to stand pat on every excessive nuclear weapon-related requirement that has been levied on US taxpayers. Nuclear orthodoxy is outdated and wildly expensive. While the US can’t go cold turkey, it can reduce nuclear force structure, stockpile size, and help wean allies from their dependence on the Bomb.
I am, in other words, proposing to walk and chew gum at the same time. The Obama administration promised in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report to “work to establish conditions” that would allow allied acceptance that the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. The predicates for this change are now being laid. The time to abandon a first-use posture is after Trump is defeated and while the predicates for a no-first-use posture are moving into place. The time to prepare for this transition is now.
Why go to this bother when it will cause consternation in some allied capitals? Because the defence of allies is too important to rest on a fictional construct. And because it is a good idea to curtail dangerous belief systems about the utility of nuclear weapons. A reality-based common defence calls for jettisoning the first-use option – but not just yet.
Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Centre. A version of this essay appeared previously in www.armscontrolwonk.com