Michael KreponMore on No Use, Period.

Quotes of the week:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

”One thing is certain and generally agreed…, namely that the only sure and easily recognized ‘firebreak’ is the dividing line between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons, however small. Once that point has been passed everyone would be in an unknown world.” — Alastair Buchan, War in Modern Society

My essay, “No Use. Period.,” published by Inkstick, a website created by Laicie Heeley that combines serious content with lapels-grabbing imagery, has elicited two contrary reactions. I’ve been taken to task for endorsing No First Use and for not endorsing No First Use.

Nuance doesn’t play well in these polarized times. So, at the risk of rubbing colleagues the wrong way, I offer more elaboration on why reframing the debate over U.S. declaratory policy from No First Use to No Use might be a good idea. Sure, it’s a stretch, but here goes.

Arms controllers and deterrence strategists are like warring tribes that want the same thing — no use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Because we want the same thing doesn’t mean that we agree about the ways and means of accomplishing it. Each tribe feels that the preferred methods of the other are a recipe for catastrophe.

A case in point is declaratory policy — when an administration broadcasts that the President might authorize battlefield use. Many in my tribe want Joe Biden to adopt a No First Use policy or its cousin, “sole purpose,” which Biden endorsed in his last days as Vice President: “that deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

Many in my tribe believe that restricting U.S. declaratory policy would set an example for others and facilitate initiatives to lessen the likelihood of mushroom clouds. The counterarguments of deterrence strategists are that U.S. friends and allies are already unsettled by Russian revanchism and Chinese muscle flexing, and would be unsettled even more if Biden endorsed the language of No First Use or sole purpose. They also argue that Moscow and Beijing would have little faith in a restrictive pledge that would likely be reversed under a Republican president, and that whatever Biden says won’t change Russian and Chinese military doctrine and national objectives.

It gives me no satisfaction to agree with the arguments of deterrence strategists in this instance.

When geopolitics trend positively, then restrictive changes in U.S. declaratory policy can be timely and helpful – such as when George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker convinced NATO allies, including an unhappy Margaret Thatcher, to accept a “weapons of last resort” formulation in 1990. Conversely, when geopolitics trend negatively, adopting restrictive language can be widely perceived as a weak move, inviting blowback at home, from allies, and perhaps from competitors, as well.

My tribe will be cut off at the knees if Biden were to adopt more restrictive language only to have Putin take another bite out of Ukraine, or if Xi Jinping intensifies his pressure campaign against Taiwan. Recovery times matter. Ronald Reagan resumed Euro-missile and strategic arms negotiations with Moscow within three years after a rump Politburo decision to keep Afghanistan in the Red column by invading it. If Moscow and Beijing were to engage in predatory behavior after Biden adopts restrictive language, the blowback could be more severe and long lasting.

Case closed, right? Not so fast. Avoiding first use is essential even if it’s not reflected in U.S. declaratory policy or the policies of other nuclear-armed states. The reasons are crystal clear, beginning with the sorry fact that deterrence fails, and fails far too often.  There have already been two limited wars over contested borders between nuclear-armed rivals.

So far, deterrence failure has not been followed by mushroom clouds. We can’t count on this in the future. Worse, if there is first use, deterrence orthodoxy demands a nuclear, escalatory response. That’s because the same twin imperatives of deterrence — seeking advantage and seeking to avoid disadvantage — also apply to nuclear war fighting in the event this threshold is crossed.

Preventing first use requires that deterrence be accompanied by campaigns against first use and other arms control measures. First use leads to more use, and uncontrolled escalation would be a crime against humanity and nature.

Success in persuading Biden to adopt more restrictive language is likely to come with significant domestic political and international costs. Moreover, this decision can be easily reversed. I believe that it’s wiser to pursue a longer game that arms controllers can win. In my bookWinning and Losing the Nuclear Peace, I propose that we aim for a century of No Use — to mark the 100th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I argue that we can get there because No Use is the hardest norm for any leader to break and because the hardest challenges are already behind us.

How, then, to square the dictates of alliance management, extended deterrence, and geopolitics with an arms control strategy and our individual responsibilities to oppose crimes against humanity and nature?

My answer won’t make sense to those who believe deeply that words can override impediments or that the dictates of deterrence are sacrosanct. I accept the need to reassure friends and allies. Declaratory policy can be narrowed without adopting No First Use or sole purpose. I also support an endless campaign against using nuclear weapons in warfare. As I write in my book,

Official doctrine speaks to the calculations of deterrence strategists; public campaigns under the banner of No First Use speak to our common humanity. Extending the record of non-battlefield use requires assuring allies as well as respecting public opinion… By speaking to different audiences, the defenders and opponents of nuclear orthodoxy can in this instance serve a complementary purpose.

While seeking conditions for a world in which nuclear weapons do not need to exist, I accept the provisional necessity of deterrence. Because deterrence fails, it has to be accompanied by effective diplomacy, including the diplomacy of arms control.

Whatever the flaws a particular arms control agreement might have in the view of critics, they pale in comparison to the flaws of deterrence, which is  unable to deal with accidents and breakdowns in command and control, and which presumes rational choice under conditions of unimaginable stress and uncertainty. The most fatal flaw of deterrence strategy is its inherent weakness in controlling escalation.

Given these flaws, treaty tear down artists have nothing to offer us but a dismal future. They would bequeath to us a greater reliance on deterrence, pointing us toward first use, and then more use.

Deterrence requires arms control to extend the norm of non-battlefield use for a century. Whatever form arms control takes, this pursuit has always been about avoiding first use, even as U.S. declaratory policy has been about reserving the option of first use. We humans don’t do well with complex messages. We prefer simplicity. But nothing is simple about reducing nuclear dangers and weapons. Mixed messages regarding the Bomb are tolerable as long as their net effect helps to prevent mushroom clouds.

The Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review doesn’t answer the mail as a stand-alone document. Nor will the dictates of deterrence be more presentable if folded into other Pentagon reports. The Pentagon doesn’t do context well. Its job is to shore up deterrence. It’s the job of the White House and the State Department to talk about arms control, but they haven’t had much to say.

We’re in need of an affirmative direction. By reframing the debate over No First Use into the pursuit of No Use, the Biden administration can speak positively to disparate domestic and international audiences. We need No Use as well as extended deterrence.

The objective of No Use is hortatory, just like the oft-repeated canonical statement by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought. Hortatory words don’t change ground realities; that takes the combination of deterrence and arms control measures. But hortatory statements, unlike Nuclear Posture Reviews, can point us in the right direction. And No Use is an end state that arms controllers and deterrence strategists can agree on.

The administration’s first year in office has nearly passed without a major address explaining why and how it intends to pursue arms control in ways that accomplish No Use on its watch. The issuance of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review provides an opportunity to do so.


  1. robgoldston (History)
  2. John Chick (History)

    I would push back against your contention that “deterrence fails, and fails far too often. There have already been two limited wars over contested borders between nuclear-armed rivals.” I may be mistaken, but nuclear deterrence has traditionally been defined within the context of conflicts going nuclear rather than preventing all war to include conventional between nuclear-armed states. Wars such as these are certainly more dangerous, but rather than representing a deterrence failure, they represent a deterrence success.

    • carlo trezza (History)

      I guess that John Chicks refers to the India /China and to the india/ Pakistan border conflicts.It so happens that in the first case both parties have adopted the No First Use doctrine an in the second case conventional weapons were sufficient to deter Pakistan from using nuclear weapons. In any case nuclear deterrence is not a mathematical science: it works until it does not work.

  3. John Hallam (History)

    Seems to my simple primitive mind that if two parties to a strategic ‘dyad’ both keep firmly to No First Use, the outcome will be ‘No Use’. Apart from mistakes caused by faulty sensors, malfunction or malware, which is a sizeable caveat, that is.

  4. Nicholas (History)

    Human beings are wonderfully brilliant idiots. There is a huge movement to save the planet from CO2 emissions but we are still stockpiling nuclear weapons with no clear ideas of what to do with them. The no use view is the most realist and coherent policy with the movement to save the planet from environmental extinction. I suspect though that “save the planet” story is also a nice fairy tale.

  5. CaptainNed (History)

    I do appreciate your banging the head on an unsolvable “problem”, but to expect humanity to reject a class of proven weapons is abject fantasy.

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