Michael KreponNo Use

Quote of the week:

“Of course I’ve got lawyers. They are like nuclear weapons, I’ve got em ’cause everyone else has. But as soon as you use them they screw everything up.” – Danny DeVito

What’s the most sensible U.S. declaratory policy for the circumstances governing the possible use of nuclear weapons in a deep crisis or in limited warfare?

Washington’s answer during the Cold War was a straightforward affirmation of first use. The conventional order of battle in Central Europe tilted in Moscow’s favor. In the event that NATO – and most particularly the enclave of West Berlin — were overrun, U.S. declaratory policy put the Kremlin on notice that it could expect the first use of nuclear weapons, originating from within or outside the theater of warfare.

Deterrence is always about threats that leave much to chance. Many questioned whether an American President would risk losing New York or Washington to defend West Berlin or Brussels. There were other questionable aspects to First Use. Would, for example, the Kremlin be willing to risk a cosmic roll of the dice by seizing NATO territory?

At the onset of the Cold War, this seemed like a very real possibility. There were hair-raising crises over Berlin in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. This flash point receded only after the construction of the Berlin Wall, and was completely put to rest with the reunification of Germany and the collapse of Soviet empire.

Another questionable Cold War assumption was that the momentous decision of first use was Washington’s to make. Wrong. The Soviet General Staff wasn’t planning to be fastidious about fighting a war to seize NATO territory. The Soviet military’s war plans, as subsequently revealed, employed nuclear detonations, and many of them — notwithstanding the Kremlin’s occasionally professed allegiance to No First Use.

The U.S. commitment to first use in extreme circumstances survived the Cold War. NATO expanded to locales, especially the Baltic states, that were not conducive to conventional defense. Meanwhile, China acquired the means to counter U.S. forward-deployed naval capabilities and threaten Taiwan with fusillades of missiles and by other means. And North Korea habitually threatened use, reaffirming the need to extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan.

During the Unipolar Moment between the demise of the Soviet Union and the wasting wars that followed the 9/11 attacks, there was no need for a straight-up reaffirmation of a first use declaratory policy. The George H.W. Bush administration even managed to coax a “weapons of last resort” formulation out of NATO (including a Margaret Thatcher-led Great Britain) in conjunction with German reunification. Contingencies associated with first use never went away, however, and became more concerning to deterrence strategists with Russian revanchism, China’s muscle flexing, and declining U.S. fortunes.

Deterrence is based on the credibility of threat making; if the threat isn’t credible, it ceases to deter. This has significant ramifications for a declaratory posture that hints of First Use. The credibility of such hints, let alone unvarnished threats, has eroded greatly after three-quarters of a century of non-battlefield use. Every day that passes without a mushroom cloud makes it harder to break this norm, regardless of nuclear doctrine and declaratory policy. The most credible threats of first use are now those of an outlier facing superior conventional forces when regime survival is on the line.

Since the possibility of mushroom clouds hasn’t gone away, declaratory postures still matter. The language that works best nods to deterrence while supporting the pursuit of arms control. Both deterrence and arms control are required to extend the norm of non-battlefield use.

This norm is foundational because both deterrence and arms control die after first use. This is why even the most ardent deterrence strengtheners and arms controllers can agree on the goal of non-use even as we argue fiercely about the instruments required for success. Deterrence strengtheners seek to extend this norm by making threats more credible; arms controllers find these measures dangerous and seek to sheathe swords. Hence the strong commitment among many of my colleagues to a declaratory posture of No First Use.

Campaigns for the adoption of No First Use speak to our common humanity. They are necessary antidotes to nuclear war-fighting plans premised on seeking advantage and dominance. No First Use is also an essential counter to the hubris of believing that escalation can be controlled once this threshold has been crossed.

Everything we hold dear hinges on the absence of first use. My vision, borrowed from Lew Dunn, is to extend the timeline of non-use until the 100th anniversary year of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and then to extend it even further. If we succeed at extending this norm, significant reductions in nuclear weapon holdings will eventually follow in train — with or without treaties, and despite nuclear war-fighting plans and whatever language we adopt regarding first use.

The vision of a century without battlefield use isn’t pie in the sky; we’re already three-quarters of the way there. This vision is realizable because the norm of non-use is the hardest for any national leader to break. We can and will succeed because we are truly lost if we fail.

If a forward-leaning affirmation of first use lacks credibility after seven decades of non-use, what’s the best alternative? I favor the formulation of “No Use,” in part because I’m partial to its double entendre effect. Unlike conventional capabilities that back up deterrence and arms control, nuclear weapons have no practical use in warfare.

Since first use is likely to lead to retaliatory use, and since escalation control faces long odds, extending the nuclear peace requires No Use. I recognize, however, that No Use is a national security policy objective, not a declaratory policy. Regrettably, nuclear-armed rivals find use in nuclear weapons. The language of No Use doesn’t help with deterrence and doesn’t answer the mail if somebody else crosses the nuclear threshold first.

A similar problem arises if we adopt the “sole purpose” criterion that Vice President Biden favored at the end of the Obama administration. It’s certainly a better formulation than first use, as the sole purpose of nuclear weapons ought to be deterrence of their use by others. My life’s work supports this objective, but I recognize that the sole purpose formulation doesn’t complicate the calculations of nuclear-armed rivals and doesn’t help if someone else starts the chain reaction of battlefield use.

As much as I admire my colleagues for advancing the declaratory posture of “No First Use,” these same cautionary arguments apply. No First Use, like First Use, has credibility problems. To begin with, nuclear-armed states do not believe in a rival’s declaration of No First Use. Pakistan, for example, doesn’t believe Indian declarations of No First Use. U.S. deterrence strategists question China’s adherence to No First Use. And Russia and China are unlikely to be swayed by a professed fealty to No First Use by the Biden administration. If we expect that a change in U.S. declaratory policy would lead to demonstrable, reassuring changes in the nuclear postures of rivals, we are likely to be disappointed.

The heart of the matter is nuclear force postures and war-fighting plans, not public declarations. If public declarations lead to demonstrable, reassuring changes in force postures and war planning, then the words have meaning. If they do not, the words are meaningless.

My colleagues who favor No First Use don’t dispute this; they argue that a change in declaratory policy would facilitate needed changes in U.S. nuclear posture and war-fighting plans. If, however, these steps are not reciprocated, they are likely to be reversed. The entire enterprise of arms control is undermined if Washington takes reassuring steps that are not reciprocated by Moscow and Beijing.

Nuclear-armed rivals take reassuring steps when they feel they must and when conditions permit; they take troubling steps when deemed necessary. There is growing friction at present between nuclear-armed rivals because of conflicting national ambitions, not because of declaratory postures. Changing the language of first use won’t ameliorate conflicting national ambitions.

Nor would the embrace of No First Use likely reduce the incidence of crises, border clashes and the possibility of a third limited war between nuclear-armed rivals. Crises and clashes happen because of issues in dispute, not because of declaratory postures. The outcome of these limited wars and lesser cases has depended on the disposition of usable conventional capabilities at the forward edge of battle, the stakes in dispute, and the risk-taking disposition of national leaders – not on declaratory policy.

Another argument against adopting No First Use is that the Trump administration has made a hash of alliance relationships. Adopting a No First Use posture would unsettle allies even more. When it comes to nonproliferation, the U.S. nuclear umbrella, however tattered, is better than no umbrella at all.

All of the states most concerned about Iranian nuclear capabilities are friends of Washington, although some of these friendships have frayed. Washington’s adoption of No First Use could prompt further hedging toward proliferation. The way to provide reassurance to these states is neither to affirm First Use nor discard the nuclear umbrella; it’s to strengthen diplomatic ties and to field conventional military capabilities that help deter bad actors.

There are additional questions of political tactics as well as nuclear strategy. Is a push for No First Use likely to succeed? Doctrinal debates usually don’t expand public support for arms control. And besides, nuclear orthodoxy usually wins these debates, as Obama administration officials can attest. Nor is a doctrinal debate over declaratory policy likely to advance other arms control agenda items on the Biden administration’s long “to do” list.

Because conflicting national ambitions aren’t going away and because we can expect serious crises in the future, we will need both deterrence and the reassurance provided by arms control to extend the norm of No Use. These twin pursuits are not antithetical; they ought to be complementary.

Weapons that haven’t been used in warfare for over seven decades can still deter but fail as instruments of warfare. Spending excessive sums on weapons that a President dare not use doesn’t advance deterrence. A wiser strategy to deal with the contingencies facing the Biden administration would redirect funding to usable military capabilities, supplemented by arms control negotiations that extend essential norms.

Unilateral and sensible changes in U.S. nuclear posture can serve the twin pursuits of deterrence and arms control. They need not depend on or await the adoption of a No First Use declaratory policy. Why, then, fight a pitched domestic battle and invite serious blowback over U.S. declaratory policy?

Recognizing that whatever language we choose to characterize the first use of nuclear weapons will have credibility issues, the formulation that makes the most sense to me is “weapons of last resort.” This declaratory posture has the virtue of directing us away from first use without pulling the rug out from under allies and friends. The “weapons of last resort” formulation has the virtue of being credible and true. It also has the virtue of being blessed by a Republican administration.

We don’t need to adopt No First Use to extend the norm of No Use. What matters most for deterrence and arms control is recognizing the dire consequences of first use. This is a low bar. Even warped national leaders have passed this test. Trump demonstrated sociopathic traits, but he couldn’t hold a candle to Mao and Stalin. None of them pressed the proverbial nuclear button. In the darkest hour of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy and Khrushchev remembered their common obligation to humanity. Those far down the chain of command – think of Arkhipov and Petrov – have also risen to the occasion during dark passages.

Some national leaders will continue to find false comfort in their declarations of readiness to use nuclear weapons first, but they know better. No one wants to open the Gates of Hell and to live in infamy if they cross this threshold. The seven-decade-long norm of No Use has taken hold. It’s our responsibility to extend it.


  1. robgoldston (History)


    See my article at the Bulletin on the “Weapons of Last Resort” or “Defensive Last Resort.” https://thebulletin.org/2018/12/what-can-the-kerch-strait-incident-teach-about-nuclear-declaratory-policy/

  2. robgoldston (History)

    Here is the reference for “Defensive Last Resort”: McGeorge Bundy, William J. Crowe, Jr., and Sidney Drell, “Reducing Nuclear Danger,” Foreign Affairs, Spring 1993, pp. 143-146. I found this after I wrote my article at BAS.

  3. John Hallam (History)

    It seems to me that this article is as confused and internally contradictory as the doctrine of deterrence itself is.

    Deterrence seemingly seeks to assure stability (no use) by threatening instability (use). The very phrase ‘a threat that leaves something to chance’ underlines this and should cause a cold shiver down the spine as doubtless its meant to.

    No First Use might not cause a decrease in crises – after all, the roots of crises are political, and the US should look searchingly at its inability to see its own faults (and not take the focus off that by putting it on the undoubted faults of other governments).

    But no first use would hopefully make it less likely that a crisis between say the US and Russia or the US and China would escalate to become a global apocalypse.

    Of course, the safest nuclear arms are those that do not exist. All our efforts at arms control, nonproliferation and risk reduction must be aimed clearly and unambiguously at abolition on an accelerated timeframe.

    In the meantime, NFU is prominent in the list of policy reccomendations that Abolition 2000 sent to President Biden not so long ago.


    John Hallam
    o-Convenor, Abolition 2000 Working Group on Nuclear Risk Reduction

  4. Michael Krepon (History)

    I’ve found confusion to be a useful device, in and out of the classroom.

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