Michael KreponAlliances and No First Use

The Bill Clinton Administration made a questionable call to expand NATO after the Cold War ended. The George W. Bush Administration made matters far worse by expanding NATO up to Russia’s border in the Baltics and pushing club membership further east, lobbying to include even Ukraine and Georgia. The action/reaction syndrome then kicked in – not with a strategic arms race, since force levels remained bounded by treaty — but by Russian countermoves against NATO expansion.

A few sage quotes on alliances from my shoeboxes filled with 4X6 cards:

“An alliance is like a chain. It is not made stronger by adding weak links to it.”
–Walter Lippmann, “Today and Tomorrow” column, 1952

“An alliance is effective only to the extent that it reflects a common purpose and that it represents an accretion of strength to its members.”
–Henry Kissinger, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, 1957

“Europeans aren’t willing to pay for our version of the threat.”
–Leonard Sullivan, talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1985

“No alliance lasts forever; it can only hope to outlive the threat that inspired it.”
–Richard Betts, “NATO’s Mid-Life Crisis,” 1989.

“Alliances are worthwhile when they put into words a real community of interests; otherwise they lead only to confusion and disaster.”
–A.J.P. Taylor, Origins of the Second World War, 1962

Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and shadow wars in eastern Ukraine and Georgia have given NATO allies more reason to cohere, but nativism is on the rise and sluggish economies provide insufficient means for the common defense. Britain’s vote to exit from the European Union will exacerbate financial woes and ensure that burden-sharing will be more lopsided in the future than in the past.

And yet, commitments have been made. U.S. withdrawal from and neglect of alliances is not an option. China’s regional ambitions and North Korea’s nuclear and missile antics raise similar questions in the Pacific: How best to shore up allies? The U.S. nuclear umbrella isn’t going away, but does Washington’s stated willingness to use nuclear weapons first still matter? Does it help? Is it necessary?

Washington has both useful and unhelpful means to respond to the needs and concerns of allies. Upgrades in conventional defense are essential. A commitment to defend allies by being willing to use nuclear weapons first isn’t. Two first-use postures – Russia’s and the United States – are not better than one, especially when the United States has the means to raise, rather than lower, the nuclear threshold.

A first-use posture doesn’t contribute to conventional defense by inducing caution, as has been abundantly clear. It’s a crutch that reflects a time when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact enjoyed significant conventional military and logistical advantages over NATO. Had Washington jettisoned its first-use posture when the Soviet Union collapsed and its Warsaw Pact allies joined NATO, no one in NATO would now be working overtime to re-institute the option of first use in response to Russia’s nuclear bluster. Instead, NATO would focus as best it can on raising the nuclear threshold by strengthening the common defense in visible and substantive ways – as it is now doing. There will be shortfalls. Reliance on the first use of nuclear weapons that would prompt Russian retaliation cannot address these shortfalls.

Granted, nuclear deterrence still matters as a backup to conventional deterrence, especially when Mr. Putin so noisily advertises his nuclear weapons. And what to do about Chinese muscle-flexing and the unpredictable North Korean leader? Would jettisoning a first-use posture hurt in the Pacific? All good questions. Answers can be found in the long list of troubling behavior by Russia, China and North Korea compiled while Washington has adhered to a first-use posture. Washington, unlike Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang, has never needed to parade fearsome missiles to clarify deterrence. The best nuclear deterrent for a state with strong conventional capabilities remains in the background, except for the occasional reminder of missile flight tests.

Back in the day, those steeped in the theology of nuclear deterrence argued that the cessation of nuclear testing would do grave harm. They were wrong. Instead, the cessation of nuclear testing by major powers over the last two decades has been a global blessing – especially to the state enjoying the greatest conventional military advantages. No reputable voice argues for renewed underground testing in the United States, or that the world would be in far better shape if the United States prompted others to resume underground testing.

Dropping Washington’s first-use posture would be unlike the cessation of nuclear testing, since three other states with serious domestic and regional security issues – Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan – will continue to adhere to first-use postures. But this isn’t an argument to keep their company if holding on to a first-use posture has not demonstrably helped the United States and U.S. allies. If suitable conventional means are available to strengthen extended deterrence, there is no compelling reason to adhere to a posture that American presidents will do their utmost to disregard. Having suitable means available requires downsizing U.S. strategic modernization programs.

A first-use posture had no bearing on the bloody wars and sordid messes that have befallen the United States since the Cold War ended. Threatening to use nuclear weapons first has not prevented bad outcomes or advanced better outcomes. These conclusions do not constitute an advertisement for belittling nuclear capabilities; they are a commentary on how little is gained by Washington’s continued adherence to a first-use nuclear posture.

Would U.S. allies in Europe and the Pacific feel more reassured if the United States uses nuclear weapons first in their defense? If not, what comfort can they really take in continued U.S. fealty to pledges of first use? If a first-use posture is not reassuring – which is the primary reason for its continued existence – then why not drop it while focusing on steps that do reassure? These steps include theater missile defense deployments and upgrades, joint military exercises, port visits, flyovers, forward-deployed U.S. troops, and rotational troop deployments.

Beyond a generalized argument over reassurance, the case for maintaining a first-use posture rests on localities around the periphery of Russia and China and on the Korean Peninsula where the correlation of conventional capabilities is likely to be insufficient for a prompt conventional defense. Another argument, as noted above, is that by adopting a No First Use posture, Washington would embolden Mr. Putin, Xi Jinping, or Kim Jong-un to engage in riskier behavior.

These arguments have merit, but they aren’t decisive. The United States cannot afford to have sufficient conventional capabilities everywhere they might be needed to repel attacks promptly. But neither can the United States afford to cross the nuclear threshold first in these contingencies. Answers must therefore be found in maintaining adequate conventional forces in reserve, mobility, agility, allies, and financial instruments that punish states that wage war or seek to coerce allies.

Since the Cold War ended – if not before – a first-use posture by the United States has not influenced limited wars and lesser military contingencies. (Exam question: Why didn’t Saddam Hussein’s use chemical weapons, but Bashar al-Assad did?) Nor has a first-use posture prevented serious crises or assured positive outcomes in crises. To believe otherwise – to believe that maintaining a first-use posture could help with limited wars and lesser military contingencies – is to disbelieve what has transpired over the past two decades, and to believe that an American President presiding over the most powerful military in the world would be the first to cross the nuclear threshold since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The leaders of other states that rely on a first-use posture to buttress glaring weaknesses might be able to convince themselves in the abstract that they would be willing to cross the nuclear threshold first – even in a crisis prompted by their own foolish or negligent actions. Any leader who does not recoil at this crucible of decision is, by definition, the most dangerous person on the planet. And someone who would not be deterred by Washington’s continued adherence to a first-use posture.

Why, then, does the Pentagon, which is so uncommonly advantaged, continue to adhere to a first-use posture? This is less about reasoning than about a core belief in the utility of nuclear weapons – not for fighting wars and lesser contingencies, but to deter them. This belief has been disabused repeatedly over the past two decades. Limited wars, lesser contingencies, and risky behavior will occur whether the United States abandons or continues to adhere to a first-use posture. Nor will the United States be able to convince other states to change a belief system dependent on first use. But Washington can at least stop deluding itself that first use is a viable option.


  1. Ben D (History)

    Well said…thank you.

  2. anon (History)

    Sorry, but I need to become pedantic with semantics… The United States does not have a “first use” posture. It has the absence of a “no first use” posture. It does not pledge to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict to discourage others from engaging in a conflict. It refuses to pledge that it will not use nuclear weapons first, once a conflict has begun, in the event of dire circumstances that threaten its vital interests.

    So the question is not whether we should develop all conventional means necessary to both bolster our promises to our allies and raise the nuclear threshold. Of course we should. The question is whether we would weaken our assurances to our allies if we pledged to never cross the threshold first in the most extreme circumstances. It may be a very low probability event, but it is one that the allies seem convinced has value.

    I’m not disputing your conclusion, just arguing that you have asked the wrong question.

  3. Kevin (History)

    First off, nuclear first use is a viable option in certain situations and the threat of doing so is an advantage for the US; it forces the enemy to act differently in certain situations. If we say that we will not use nuclear weapons first then they can mass forces at perceived weak points, they can use fortifications or tunnels that are threatened by nuclear weapons, but are not under threat by conventional munitions. Nuclear first use calculates into the enemies decision making on how they conduct warfare, that is beneficial to us, especially when we do not have the force posture in Europe and on the Korean Peninsula we did during the Cold War when we could have, arguably, countered a massed enemy force.

    Secondly, a force posture of nuclear first use is not designed for influencing small wars and low intensity conflicts. That is like saying FONOPS in the SCS has not made China improve their human rights. 1

    Third, you talk about all of the bad things that have happened under the nuclear first use force posture, but, under the same logic, you could also say that there has not been a single nuclear exchange or major conflict between nuclear powers under that same posture. Now, I am not going to say that it is because of the policy of nuclear first use, but the same correlation is present as in your argument.

    Finally, all of the conventional things that we could do to reassure our allies instead of a position of nuclear first use would have costs, tangible, visible costs. The costs of a nuclear first use policy may exist but they are theoretical or perceived costs, not real ones. Every time we do the things you mention it provokes an escalatory reaction from our regional adversaries. Now, personally, that does not really bother me, but this is at least worth considering when taking conventional reassurance measures. Arguably, there are no immediate escalatory consequences of maintaining the status quo of nuclear first use; if we were to do away with this, the only way to reassure allies would then be to ramp up the conventional reassurance measures you outlined above, which would almost guarantee an increase in regional tensions with our adversaries. So your strategy has costs as well and it also increases the likelihood of uncontrolled escalation and crisis miscalculation when compared to a relatively timid policy of nuclear first use. I call it timid because we do not go around like Russia or DPRK waving our nuclear weapons every time someone doesn’t genuflect in our presence.

    In the end I think my third point is the most important from the opinion of maintaining a nuclear first use policy. The status quo, while worrisome at times and paranoia inducing at others, has been pretty good to the US and NATO, so why should we change it? To appear more humanitarian? That is not a compelling reason to me. You would need to convince me that, if we changed our stance to a no first use policy, the likelihood of war between nuclear powers would go down to near zero. Good luck.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Well argued.

  4. Shaheen (History)

    The proper way to characterize US (as well as UK, NATO and France) postures is not “first use”, but “no-no-first-use”.

  5. Jonah Speaks (History)

    First nuclear use makes rational sense only against a non-nuclear power (e.g., World War II Japan), or against a distinctly inferior nuclear power (early Cold War Soviet Union). Against a peer nuclear power (later Cold War years and Russia now) it makes no rational sense. NATO got stuck on the nuclear crutch because they refused to spend the money for conventional arms and troops, not because it was rational.

    Proponents of nuclear first use usually suggest some limited first use, in the hope that nuclear war will stay limited. There is no upside, because It is vain to hope that a limited nuclear war would be less damaging than a conventional war. On the downside, limited nuclear first use would create significant likelihood of a full-scale nuclear war and a global catastrophe beyond history. There can be no conventional war defeat that would rationally justify the catastrophic risk of nuclear war.

    We should eschew irrational obfuscation, and clearly state that no future “extreme circumstance” can justify starting a nuclear war. No first use of nuclear weapons is simply a rational requirement for sensible avoidance of nuclear war. It also provides rational guidance for our own military planners, future Presidents, and other nuclear powers.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      What you are saying, in other words, is that first use invites further use, so first use against the states that we worry about most is a non-option.

      And first use against states that don’t have the Bomb is beyond the pale.

      I agree.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      My comments above addressed only the rationality of nuclear first use, not its morality. To assess whether nuclear use against a nuclear-unarmed state would be rational (in terms of national self interest), there are two main considerations: the immediate consequences and the long-term consequences.

      For example, if Russia would nuclear bomb Ukraine, other nations would likely feel disturbed by this extreme behavior. An immediate consequence could be that Russia would suffer severe economic sanctions, or suffer severe military punishment by conventional or nuclear weapons from non-Ukraine sources.

      In the long term, Russia would have set a bad precedent. This would cause many nonnuclear nations to consider acquiring nuclear weapons for self defense. It would also provoke the nuclear-armed nations to develop their nuclear stocks further. It would also make nations more likely to use nuclear weapons in future conventional wars. In short, the risk of future nuclear wars would increase. This long-term consequence would be bad for all nations, including Russia.

      Both the immediate and long-term impact on Russia would likely outweigh any “benefit” that Russia might obtain from nuclear bombing Ukraine. Hence, it would be irrational to nuclear attack a non-nuclear state, albeit less clearly and obviously irrational than to bomb a nuclear-armed state.

  6. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    “…that have happened under the nuclear first use force posture, but, under the same logic, you could also say that there has not been a single nuclear exchange or major conflict between nuclear powers under that same posture. Now, I am not going to say that it is because of the policy of nuclear first use, but the same correlation is present as in your argument.”

    Yep, nuclear deterrent works. No doubt about it, and I don’t understand why this argument is not more often dragged into the spotlight…people like Sakharov who had an intimate knowledge about the birth of the nuclear deterrent had no doubt whatsoever that the reason we didn’t see a major third world-war was the presence of nuclear weapons.
    I guess one has of course to admit that in order for the deterrent to work, (a) rational actors are somehow desired and (b) deterring non-state actors might be a challenge.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      There have been two limited wars between nuclear-armed states to date — USSR vs China and India vs Pakistan.
      So… nope, deterrence doesn’t work, except in the most extreme cases.

    • Kevin (History)

      I disagree, sir. Deterrence does work in all cases other than the most low intensity conflicts. Everyone is too afraid of uncontrolled escalation, including third parties who will intervene to control escalation. If Pakistan and India did not have nuclear weapons in 1999 do you think the international community would have cared that much about a border dispute? Compare it to N-K from a few months ago.

      Nuclear weapons and, arguably, deterrence, keeps cases from becoming too extreme. Even in cases of full scale warfare between two WMD armed states you could say deterrence works considering the Gulf War. You could use the case of Desert Storm/Shield as a case for deterrence and why Saddam did not use CW/BW. Granted, there is no conclusive evidence that nuclear retaliation was why, but I think it is a reasonable argument, even if you cannot come to a definitive conclusion.

    • Leandro (History)

      I am sorry to disagree with Kevin, but I don’t really think Saddam refrained from using WMD’s in 1991 because of fears of nuclear retaliation; rather, Iraq saw Desert Storm as a conventional counteroffensive following its invasion of Kuwait, but not as an operation deviced to force regime change (which, in fact, did not happen).

      As an example, Iraq aimed the SCUD’s at Israel to try to force an israeli counterattack that allowed him to raise anti-jewish sympathy througout his arab neighbourhood, and he didn’t load chems on those SCUD’s for the same reason.

      Saddam could have used its non-conventionals had he feared his own survival was at stake, as Assad did.

      (Come to think of it, in a crazy way, Assad using them and crossing the “Red Line” got him, couple of years later, to have the US bombing his enemies rather than his armed forces. I think his going full throttle and risking retaliation is what convinced the russians to support him like they did, and that game-changer modified US reaction, from Tomahawking what was left of Syria’s armed forces to, effectively, trading Sirya’s WMD’s for airstrikes against Syria’s enemies).

      I don’t think that Saddam’s calculus about Desert Storm included fears of Iraq’s total occupation. In the later invasion of 2003, when there was a clearly stated objective of removing the whole Iraqui government, he was left without the WMD option, so we can’t tell for sure whether he would have used them as an extreme defensive mean.

  7. Marcus (History)

    I’m not sure that a no first use policy makes any difference. Any situation where the U.S. would think about using nuclear weapons would be so beyond the pale, that whoever did it wouldn’t trust what we said in the past anyway. We invaded an unrelated country over 9/11, who could predict what we would do if there was a bioweapon attack and a million dead? I guess what I am saying is that the U.S. dosen’t look like a rational actor when it is hurt badly, and other states have to at least consider we would go nuclear, no matter what our stated policy. Wouldn’t this effectively amount to a first use policy? Perhaps this is why this particular posture dosen’t get much attention.

    • Kevin (History)

      Exactly, look at the USSR’s no first use pledge, when their nuclear plans were released later on they definitely planned to use nuclear weapons first. No rational actor would ever take a nuclear armed country’s word for it when the stakes are so high, even if they did make such a pledge.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      This raises the issue of whether a no first use policy for nuclear weapons should have any qualifiers. For example, if other WMD weapons are used, or if strictly conventional weapons are used indiscriminately to kill large numbers of civilians. In my view, if the scale and scope of the non-nuclear weapons use is equivalent to that of nuclear weapons use, a proportionate nuclear response may be appropriate, though not necessarily the best response. How this should be worded is a good question for debate.

      Russia is only talking about its nuclear weapons prowess, not threatening to use biological or chemical weapons. Russia today is not the Soviet Union of yesterday. So long as Russia does not use its nuclear weapons and refrains from wars of extermination using conventional weapons, there is no good reason for the U.S. or NATO to be using nuclear weapons first against Russia. Why not just say so?

    • Marcus (History)

      So to Jonah,
      What would be the point, except producing more paperwork? We wouldn’t be belived. I don’t think at the planning level, that there is any trust of the U.S. And for the paranoid outlook of the Russians, we don’t help ourselves on the trust front; the Russians hate hate hate our crappy SDI, but we keep putting up bases near them.

    • anon (History)


      You seem to be arguing for a policy that says “we will use nuclear weapons to punish you if you do X” where X is either “use nuclear weapons against us” or use any weapon “indiscriminately to kill large numbers of civilians.” But U.S. nuclear planning and employment doctrine is not based on punishment. The plans for use consider the need to destroy targets critical to achieving our war aims when other weapons are not capable of destroying those targets. That calculation does not depend on the weapon used by the bad guy or the number of civilians killed by the bad guy. So, we may need to threaten use nuclear weapons to deter non-nuclear conflicts, and we may not need to use nuclear weapons even if the other guy used them. Its about the targets and our war aims, not about punishment.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Marcus, Even partial belief in “no first use” is better than none at all. We start by talking the talk, walking the walk, and planning the plans. Belief will follow, particularly if we explain why the policy is rational, and otherwise provide transparency and reassurance that our no first use policy is real. Belief in “no first use” is useful to reassure a possible enemy that his first strike against us would be both unnecessary and counter-productive.

      Anon, I know of only two methods for deterrence: Deterrence by denial or deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial would require either a (highly dangerous) pre-emptive strike, or a very effective (nonexistent) BMD. Deterrence by punishment requires, under the appropriate circumstances, that there be punishment targets and punishing war aims. Whether to punish, and how much to punish, very much depends on what the bad guy does.

    • anon (History)

      If your definitions of deterrence are the only ones, then you’d have to argue that the U.S. has never practiced nuclear deterrence.

      Nuclear deterrence is based on the promise of unacceptable consequences. Counter-civilian punishment is not the only way to promise unacceptable consequences, and it is certainly not (and never has been) U.S. policy. Denial of war aims, through attacks on critical targets, does not have to be pre-emptive. It can be disruptive, after the war begins, in ways that both deny the attacker the ability to achieve his objectives and assure the loss of critical, high value targets.

      You also seem to assume that the only targets for nuclear weapons, in a denial scenario, are other nuclear weapons. So, if you don’t pre-empt, you don’t succeed. However, that, too, is not consistent with U.S. war plans. Critical targets whose destruction would disrupt and deny an adversaries objectives don’t have to be the adversary’s nuclear weapons. Critical targets become “nuclear targets” for the U.S. because the only way to achieve a sufficient probability of destruction is with the use of a U.S. nuclear weapon (because the target is either highly hardened or deeply buried.)

      Also “first use” is not U.S. policy and is not baked into U.S. war plans. The plans designate what weapons will be used against which targets, in what sequence. The decision to institute the plan, either before an attack occurs or in retaliation for the attack, is up to the President. So, an NFU doctrine would not change U.S. war plans, except if it made some plans unworkable due to the assumption that some U.S. forces would be unavailable after an attack (and that assumption depends on the capabilities of the adversary; not all potential adversaries could degrade U.S. forces.)

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Anon, Thank you for the extended discussion on U.S. nuclear policies and plans.

      “The decision to institute the [nuclear war] plan, either before an attack occurs or in retaliation for the attack, is up to the President.” Under a no first use policy, the President would have to wait for a nuclear attack to occur before using nuclear weapons, rather than hurry up and start a nuclear war on his own initiative.

      Strictly as an exception to no first use, if an enemy massively attacks civilians as a bullying tactic, or as an expression of hatred, deterrence of such attacks may require that the U.S. be willing to counter-attack with nuclear weapons. This would be an exception reserved to extreme cases only, for massive attacks clearly outside the rules for conventional war.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      No first use means no first use. With no ifs, ands and buts.
      It makes sense because no US President would exercise first use. The option is hollow. It’s rhetorical. It’s empty.
      Some allies will feel uneasy about not having an option a President won’t use. Even when they do not wish to be defended with mushroom clouds. Not on their soil. These allies also short-change conventional defense.
      Here’s what these allies can do: help the United States provide for the common defense.

  8. Marcus (History)

    One thing that ticks me off in terms of the wonkish analysis is the neglect of the call for action, any action even if it makes no sense. I see alot of you folks parsing international law and rational actor game theory. That will all go out the window if something bad happens. The from hell’s dark heart folks will win out in whatever bunker they are debating. And that will lead to awful things. So what is the answer? Slow engagement. I really don’t see any other options, and that takes decades.

  9. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I think there are some special cases to consider with the current potential battlefield of any Russia vs NATO conflict. First off the Baltics are extremely small, and the tripwire of going from initial invasion to probable loss of the Baltic states is rather short. In a dedicated Russian effort, I could see the total conquest and occupation of the Baltics happening over a period of hours if no strategic warning is given or heeded. The Balts should be consulted if they really want their small countries defended by nuclear weapons. Also the invasion routes into Poland would give plenty of geography to blunt a Russian armored push. It’s not like trying to stop the Soviets at the Fulda Gap in order to save the bulk of West Germany. It’s reasonable to think the British, Americans, Germans, and French could get their tank divisions into Poland to defend Poland and to even make a push at re-taking the Baltic states from a Russian invasion. I would argue that, again because of geography, the Russians would be deterred from using nuclear weapons on Baltic soil as the fallout plumes would foul Russian and Bela-Russian population concentrations.

    NATO might be able to script a war plan based totally on conventional means of making any attempt at the Baltics expensive, and combine that with a reasonable insurance of blunting a Russian push into Poland, and combine that with a policy of to re-group, and counterattack and re-take the Baltic states. I’m sure the Balts would trade the ruin of conventional weaponry in place of having radioactive craters to clean up, and I doubt the Russians are so mad as to foul their own territory with the fallout plumes of their own use of nuclear weapons. In this new standoff I wonder if conventional forces already have the center stage if only for the limitations of geography that apply to both sides?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Allies like extended deterrence. They don’t like to be defended with mushroom clouds. Preserving the right to first use works as a posture , but not as an option.

  10. Bradley Laing (History)

    “Theresa May to be briefed on protocol for firing nuclear weapons
    ‘Nuclear deputies’ to take charge if British prime minister killed in enemy offensive

    When a prime minister crosses the threshold of 10 Downing Street for the first time, many formal procedures need to be run through. None is more secret than the protocol for firing Britain’s nuclear weapons.
    Theresa May will be taken through these procedures by Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary, and Gen Sir Nicholas Houghton, chief of the defence staff. They will inform her of the technical means – the codes – by which Trident can be launched.”