Michael KreponNo First Use

Quote of the week:

“A ‘no first use’ policy would be the end of flexible response and thus of the very credibility of the Western strategy of deterrence.”

– Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, speech at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies on April 6, 1982

How can it be that the United States, the strongest nation in the world, still reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first to initiate conflict? You know, the military with the most awesome array of conventional weapons, including precise counterforce capabilities, to be complemented perhaps by hypervelocity weapons?

The primary reason for clinging to nuclear first use is Cold War reasoning applied to new problem sets. Let’s face it: U.S. nuclear strategists are hooked. They are incapable of new thinking when it comes to first use. When was the last time conventional nuclear wisdom from the 1970s (if not earlier) was revised rather than reaffirmed?

Nuclear strategists no doubt have the same complaint about “arms controllers.” I get their point, but the employment of nuclear weapons is different from any initiative for deep (or modest) cuts folks have on offer. If the U.S. nuclear posture were to shrink for budgetary reasons by, say, twenty-five percent, who would really notice over time? But if the United States, or any other nuclear-armed state, were to detonate a mushroom cloud, it would be a tragedy of world historic proportions.

The primary argument against accepting No First Use is that to relax dogma would open floodgates. Invite the deluge. Yield the first move. It’s not what Washington thinks, it’s what Putin thinks, right? Does Putin really think that the first use of a nuclear weapon against the United States of any kind would be a satisfying military experience?

If Putin uses nuclear weapons first against the United States military, he would open the Gates of Hell. And vice versa. If Putin goes first, it would likely be in pursuit of a Baltic campaign that would top off his previous annexation of the Crimea and incursions into western Ukraine and Georgia. This would certify him as a man willing to lose much, instead of the steely risk taker we have known so far.

And now Putin is ––– surprise ––– a presidential aspirant, yet again. Why pursue nuclear first use in the Baltics when he has used other methods semi-successfully elsewhere? Just how ambitious is this man? NATO would implement plans to come to the assistance of its allies at levels and techniques as called for by its Article V collective defense provision. Is Putin ready to take the United States military on directly?

There are nuclear weapons in the U.S. quiver, but why go there first? We would be using pure evil on a battlefield for the third time since 1945, after a hiatus of seven decades. Would Washington be willing to unleash another mushroom cloud, however tailored, on our planet? I can’t believe the U.S. military would resort to nuclear first use, and I am far from alone.

All of the stratagems of deterrence are tolerable to most only as long as they don’t result in a mushroom cloud. Once there is a mushroom cloud, how does a state that uses a single weapon signal stoppage? How does an opponent react to a mushroom cloud? What use is first use if it cannot prevent subsequent use?

We live in a world of thousands of nuclear weapons, each an unmitigated evil when transitioned from deterrence to use. There’s no justification for unleashing evil on the planet – certainly when you possess the most powerful conventional capabilities in the world with the requisite firepower and accuracy to provide a credible alternative to nuclear use in most imaginable contexts. An American first use policy was firmly rooted in the context of the Cold War when NATO’s conventional forces in Europe were thought to be weaker than those of the Warsaw Pact; the military context is starkly different today.

Pakistan, too, reserves the right to initiate the first use of nuclear weapons. We understand why: because India is the stronger state. Pakistan, the weaker conventional state, has no recourse but to rely on first use. But what conceivable scenario would India attack Pakistan conventionally out of the blue? India would use conventional force against Pakistan only when seriously provoked by groups long-linked to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.

How would the world view Pakistan – a state that abets proxy groups that might spark a crisis and then uses nuclear weapons first in “self-defense”? It would forever view Pakistan as a pariah state. First use wouldn’t even be defensive, as the nuclear enclave in Pakistan is far outpacing India’s nuclear program. How can this be? Because Rawalpindi is purposeful, and Delhi sees only very limited value in weapons one can’t actually use on a battlefield without opening the Gates of Hell. So, Pakistan remains unique: a conventionally inferior but nuclear superior state that holds tightly to a doctrine of first use.

As for other nuclear-armed states that reserve the right to use weapons first – weapons that become utterly evil when transitioned from deterrence to battlefield use — there are Great Britain and France, but we need not dwell on extremely unlikely scenarios.

That leaves but one nuclear-armed state – North Korea under Kim Jong Un. Would he be justified in opting for first use if his leadership is directly threatened by preemptive war? I suspect Kim would fear so, and he may act so.

The way to prevent the third use of a mushroom cloud and perhaps far more since 1945 is to employ diplomacy to end this standoff. There is no military option that reduces the prospect of a mushroom cloud more than diplomacy.


  1. m212 (History)

    No first use should be a cornerstone of any peace treaty. I hope we one day soon see one on the Korean Peninsula.

    • eparris (History)

      The premise is based upon human rationality. I am sorry, but it won’t work. Do you believe in the rantings of Young Rocket Boy? How about Pres. Trump? Being first is the essence of “success.”

  2. Michael (History)

    I think you academics spend too much time thinking about issues in ivory towers to understand reality. It is illegal to rob a bank, but people do. Any “policy” only means as much as the honor of the people committing to it. If North Korea signed a “no first use” treaty, I double anyone (except maybe you) would feel more relieved. The problems of the world are not solved by promising not to use a weapon, and every country has broken promised. I don’t want to risk my life on believing in these promises. I also don’t think we should promise to not use nuclear weapons first, because it is impossible to conceive what the need could be. What if North Korea is developing small pox and about to release it everywhere and the only way to save the planet is to use a nuclear weapon on them? Who knows? How could you know?

    • Suraya (History)

      Your example suggests that there could be non-nuclear weapons that 1) are as destructive or worse than nukes, and 2) could only be deterred or combatted with nukes as the lesser of two evils. That’s hard to believe (perhaps I just lack imagination), but it’s an interesting addition to the conversation. If there are specific weapons that fit the bill, the solution seems to be semantic – declare a “no first use of [weapons on the same evilness level as nukes]” policy. I also think it would be hard to explain why there was no way to destroy a threat (like the proposed small pox) with conventional weapons.

      The second half of your response isn’t quite consistent with the first. You argue that the US should not declare a no first use policy because in case of some bizarre scenario where deploying a nuclear weapon is the only way to save the world, we’d be beholden to policy. But you also note correctly that policy doesn’t have to equal reality. I can see the utility of adopting a no first use policy to communicate an intent that promotes stability (the last thing I want is a potential nuclear adversary being jumpy about the possibility of a US nuclear strike), while implicitly holding the option in reserve in case of that one, incredibly unlikely, crazy scenario.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      You miss my point about no first use. It’s unequivocal.

  3. J House (History)

    ‘No first use’ is no more than a ‘feel good’ strategy.It doesn’t work in boxing, and it won’t work in the next nuclear war…it is literally a prescription for ‘lights out’.