Michael KreponNo Use is Stronger Than No First Use

Quote of the week:

“The earth — its cities and its forests in particular — is like a well-laid fire. If you light it with enough nuclear matches, it will burn, and as it burns it will fill the atmosphere with smoke and plunge much of the world into a frigid darkness for several months.” — Jonathan Schell, The Abolition (1984).

I salute Women’s Action for New Directions and Woman’s Legislators Lobby for convening women state legislators to lend impetus to the prevention of mushroom clouds on battlefields. They have assembled under the banner of No First Use. No First Use is crucial, because first use will be followed by second use, perhaps very quickly, given how spring-loaded nuclear postures are. Then all hell can break loose.

Whatever issue matters most to you, that issue is imperiled by mushroom clouds. I endorse No First Use, but wonder whether it is the right rallying cry. Please bear with me.

The prevention of battlefield use of nuclear weapons has been the most profound, unacknowledged diplomatic achievement of the Cold War. No one expected success, not even the early conceptualizers of deterrence theory. Deterrence alone didn’t prevent battlefield use because deterrence is dangerous and is subject to breakdowns. Reassurance was as important as deterrence in preventing mushroom clouds, but there were still many close calls.

And yet we survived, so far, without nuclear war. There are many reasons for this success — hard diplomatic work, trust building, deterrence, plain dumb luck and perhaps divine intervention. The norm of non-battlefield use has now held for almost three-quarters of a century. The national leader that breaks this norm and uses nuclear weapons first will live in infamy for as long as there is recorded history.

Every useful step in reducing nuclear dangers as well as reducing the salience and numbers of nuclear weapons depends on the absence of mushroom clouds. Success in protecting this norm can compensate for failures on other fronts.

Crucial norms have succeeded even as treaties have fallen by the wayside. Nuclear arms control was conceived in the early 1960s. It was designed to be about stabilization, but it devolved into a numbers game, much to the disappointment of some of its conceptualizers, like Thomas Schelling. Because it was a numbers game and because harsh critics didn’t trust the process, the numbers became increasingly complex. Treaties became hundreds of pages long with dense paragraphs of fine print. The more complex the numbers got, the longer it took to negotiate them and the easier it was for critics that opposed lower numbers to take aim.

The era of numbers-based nuclear arms control is on life support. I’ve argued elsewhere that it is important to try to extend the numbers we’ve got (New START). Whether or not Donald Trump can be convinced of the wisdom of doing so, what do we do next?

In my book in progress, thankfully supported by the MacArthur Foundation, I argue that a new plan is needed, one that brings in other regional nuclear powers. Success is more likely by placing norms rather than numbers front and center. Demanding that China join the United States and Russia is a numbers-based treaty at this stage is a snare and a dodge. But we can bring Beijing into a norms-based approach. And if we can bring China in, India and Pakistan can follow.

What would a norms-based approach look like? The most important norm is no mushroom clouds. To reinforce this norm, the norm of no nuclear testing is also central. Every test — and there have been almost 2,000 during the Cold War — was an advertisement of potential use.

The norm of not demonstrating prowess through nuclear testing, like the norm of no battlefield use, is taking hold. The Soviet Union stopped testing in 1990. The United States stopped in 1992. China stopped in 1996. India and Pakistan started and stopped in 1998, over two decades ago. The passage of time without testing doesn’t foreclose resumption, but makes this decision harder for national leaders.

A new 21st Century plan can succeed if it’s built around these two norms. Subsidiary norms can lend reinforcement. Norm building can be reaffirmed by treaties. Their entry into force is to be sought and welcomed, but norms can still be strengthened absent entry into force. Numbers can also be utilized to back up norms, but without norms, the numbers might provide only cold comfort and would be hard to draw down. The longer key norms are observed, the more they facilitate the draw down of numbers — with or without treaties.

Amidst our cries of lamentation, it’s worth remembering that every day, month and year that passes without the use and testing of nuclear weapons constitutes a victory because the passage of time raises the bar for potential norm breakers.

I know that questions have lately been raised about whether Russia has tested nuclear devices below detectable yields. If the U.S. Intelligence Community has a credible case in this regard, it can defend this assertion against an intense inquiry by independent technical experts. Color me skeptical, given the U.S. Intelligence Community’s prior record of being wrong about declaring testing violations. This is one more mess — and a rather minor one, at that — to be cleaned up after the Trump administration moves on to the trash heap of history.

One reason why abolition campaigns run out of gas is that the focus of effort is, by design, on the end state. The sooner the proposed end state for abolition, the more politically unrealistic it seems; the more distant the end state, the easier it becomes to be dismissive. In contrast, with a norms-based approach, success happens every day, every month, and every year without battlefield use and testing. We succeeded yesterday. We can succeed today. And tomorrow. A norms-based approach lends itself to success far more than one based on complex numbers and an ideal end state.

What do we call this most important norm? What bumper sticker lends itself to growing public support and makes rebuttals harder?

In my view, “No First Use” isn’t the right frame. It’s too wonky. Rebuttals are easy, beginning with the obvious one: Russia doesn’t accept No First Use. Pakistan won’t accept No First Use, either. India is backing away from it. Why does embracing this make the United States safer? See what I mean?

No First Use is a doctrinal issue. Doctrinal debates don’t expand public support. And besides, nuclear orthodoxy usually wins doctrinal debates. Just ask Obama administration officials who sought doctrinal change.

What bumper sticker would be better than No First Use? My thinking is still evolving, and could use more feedback. For now, the slogan “No Use” works best for me. It’s readily understandable. It’s simple and hard to rebut. It’s not about doctrine; it’s about common sense and public safety. Opponents have to explain why a deterrent strategy based on threatening use is a sound idea, which places them on the defensive, particularly when seeking weapon systems that seem particularly oriented toward battlefield use.

“Weapons of last resort” is also better than No First Use, in my view, in part because the George H.W. Bush administration blessed these words. But this formulation is less succinct, and it doesn’t have the useful double entendre effect of “No Use.” Do we expand our congregation by arguing doctrine or common sense? If we wish to grow our ranks beyond those already committed, “No Use” seems a better way to go.

No state possessing nuclear weapons wants to use them on battlefields. Every state’s nuclear enclave would like to resume nuclear testing, but with every passing year, it will be harder to do this. A new, norms-based  21st Century plan to reduce nuclear dangers and weapons can be successfully built around these two norms.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    What do you mean by “no use”? Do you mean no first use and no second use ever, even if an opponent uses nuclear weapons against you? Not even India or China have a “no use” policy, but maintain nuclear weapons in reserve to retaliate against an opponent’s first use.

    Admittedly, a “no use” policy can be made completely credible: Simply dismantle all your nuclear weapons (or don’t build any, if you don’t have them yet). Sounds like the Ban Treaty, which the nuclear-armed nations surely won’t sign.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      After first use, all bets are off. Therefore, no use.

  2. Nathan Milburn (History)

    I think that most nations would understand that after a first use, any nation that has nuclear arms would consider all bets to be off, including a “no use” policy. I think that this undermines the credibility of a “no use” policy in a nation where nuclear weapons exist.

    The only credible policy is one that assumes that nuclear weapons haven’t been used. I think that this makes “no first use” the more credible policy, as displeasing as that is.

  3. Aaron Tovish (History)

    Michael, it is great to know I have company in the struggle to get this right. As you say, “My thinking is still evolving, and could use more feedback.” In broad strokes, this is what I have arrived at so far:
    — The paramount responsibility of any state which acquires nuclear weapons is to prevent their use.
    — This means preventing both deliberate and inadvertent use.
    — Regarding the former: don’t go starting a nuclear war, ever! Eliminate all options (threats) to initiate nuclear warfare.
    — Regarding the latter: don’t assume that one or even a few nuclear explosions were an act of war, they might have been due to an accident, unauthorized use, terrorist provocation, or something we haven’t even imagined yet. (All “lapses” that one is bound to do the utmost to prevent oneself from allowing.)
    — So make your arsenal invulnerable and use the time that invulnerability buys you to be sure you know what’s what.
    — If you cannot shoulder this responsibility (and the expense of doing it thoroughly), you should get out of the nuclear weapon business double time.
    The above is a bit wonky, but it all fits nicely under the slogan: “Prevent Nuclear War!” Yes, no use or no first use, but also no knee-jerk reactions.
    The great strength of NFU and Prevent Nuclear War, is that once it has become the norm then the possibility of collexctively doing an even better job of preventing nuclear war become logical, i.e. abolition within a robust non-acquisition regime.

    While I am at it, It would like to take exception to this remark: “Rebuttals are easy, beginning with the obvious one: Russia doesn’t accept No First Use. Pakistan won’t accept No First Use, either. India is backing away from it. Why does embracing this make the United States safer? See what I mean?”
    No, I do not see what you mean! There is NO objective basis for saying that NFU has served China or India less well that first-use options have served the other nuclear armed countries. There is a strong case to be made that even if your adversary has a first-use options, it is stabilizing to let them know they don’t need to make hasty decisions about first use. The “keep them guessing” line is just plain dumb.
    As for India backing away from NFU, I am hoping they will “disappoint” all the nuclear mandarins who have been “predicting” for this for so long — and even longer regarding China. I and some cosigners have written a open letter on this very issue to political leaders in India, let’s hope it and a recent flurry of other voices of reason help India stay the course. Aaron

  4. Greg Thielmann (History)

    Adopting a “No First Use” doctrine would yield enormous savings in future strategic expenditures and in lowering adversarial estimates of the threat posed by the United States. Even so, as Obama’s failure to adopt it demonstrates, it remains a heavy lift. However sympathetic we may be to the ultimate “No Nuclear Use.” objective, I don’t see why we would want to reduce our chances of achieving NFU by abandoning the support of the many believers in “nuclear deterrence.”

    • Aaron Tovish (History)

      This is an important point. Many believe that as long as others have nuclear weapons, it is unwise to give them the impression that they might be able to use them with impunity. Such folks might also agree that logically it makes sense to get rid of nuclear weapons if everyone does it. They may feel that the case for ensuring/verifying that everyone actually does it is not yet convincing. (Clearly there is some important work still to be done on this point.) But they are willing to consider what policy is most likely to prevent nuclear war (see my previous post) in the meantime and it’s there that no-first-use is clearly superior. (It may be slightly inferior in preventing major war, but the relative consequences of major war versus nuclear war are so vast that, in balance, NFU is far less risky.)
      Relying on nuclear threats to counter conventional threats closes the door to achieving a nuclear weapon free world. Some might say, “So what?” Well, each of the nuclear weapon states that signed the NPT pledged to achieve a NWFW. Say so what to that, and the gates to proliferation swing wide open. If you say so what to THAT, then I hope you can be kept very far away from any role relating to nuclear weapons.

  5. Jessica Sleight (History)

    Dr. Krepon,
    Thanks for your words. There are many aspects to comment on but I want to push back on the idea that No First Use is somehow wonky. Yes, one can get into deep, academic discussions about deterrence theory, first use, first strike, etc. but the concept of NFU is pretty easy for the general public to understand. In fact, it’s one of the first elements of nuclear weapons policy I’ve seen that people can hold onto and feel empowered and knowledgable enough to advocate for.

    Amidst the public polls that show majority support for NFU, there is growing anecdotal evidence from conversations that colleagues and I have had with people who are not in national security, foreign policy, academia, or even in activist circles. When discussing NFU, people have been able to immediately grasp what the problem is (both nuclear risk and sole authority), what NFU is and how it would address the problem. Think we do a disservice to the movement and to those primed to join the movement by suggesting this concept is too much for people to understand.

    Believe if we shift focus to No Use — as much as we do not want to see nuclear weapons used ever again — we will run up against a more entrenched point of view that we are out-of-touch with real security dynamics. Acknowledging there are real conversations to be had — of the more wonky variety — when it comes to implementation, NFU seems to sit in a sweet spot of an easy entry point for the public, something that is gaining momentum in Congress and among top-tier presidential candidates, something that would reduce nuclear risk, something that would make sense to some of those who still see value in a fielding a credible nuclear deterrent and something that would be a relatively dramatic step toward global zero.

  6. Matthew Bunn (History)

    A less wonky, very understandable version: “Don’t Start Nuclear Wars!”

  7. Peggy Mason (History)

    “Don’t Start Nuclear Wars” does not address escalation to nukes in a conventional war. I too strongly support the focus on a norm of “no use” of nuclear weapons, period.

  8. hcaldic (History)

    the only sane solution is NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT NOW!

  9. jprehn (History)

    We who think and write about nukes, the targets/victims of nuclear powers, value some aspects of the human project beyond ourselves–perhaps the sciences, arts, technology–that make the existence of our species desirable, beyond our own. Nuclear monarchs, who hold our existence in their hands, are their own highest value: nothing is higher than the Emperor, the King, the Tsar, often called a “president.” This makes our plight even more dire, since they have no reason to hold back when their own end is in sight. Nation states and their monarchs are our biggest threat; until they go, we live on the brink.

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