For nearly five decades, the Cold War nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union threatened to unleash a devastating nuclear war at almost any time. The worst danger came when officials on both sides argued that a nuclear war could be fought, and sought the means to win such a conflict. Alarmingly, the idea of nuclear warfighting is back in vogue under the current administration. It must again be rejected.
Nuclear catastrophe was avoided then largely because Washington and Moscow both eventually recognized that if an opponent had nuclear forces that survived a strike, they could respond to a nuclear attack with their own and inflict unacceptable damage on the aggressor. This was the essence of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and the cornerstone of true deterrence. It is why President Ronald Reagan declared in his 1985 State of the Union address that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” — opening the door to real arms control and nuclear reductions with Russia that are now very much at risk.
Now, as then, nuclear believers like those in the Trump administration looked for ways to eclipse MAD with capabilities for fighting and winning a nuclear war. Key to these nuclear warfighting mind-sets is the idea of “escalation dominance,” where one side thinks it can use nuclear weapons but somehow prevent the other side from doing the same. This conceit increasingly drives U.S. nuclear policy. President Trump and his advisers have strongly embraced this risky set of policies and seek new, “low-yield” nuclear weapons to make these threats easier to carry out.
These concepts of escalation dominance and nuclear warfighting are dangerous fantasies. It is illogical and baseless to believe that a U.S. nuclear weapon could be used first against another nuclear-armed country without provoking a catastrophic nuclear counterattack.
For 11 minutes (out of 300) during the two Democratic presidential debates this week, moderators addressed the critically important issue of nuclear war. CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday why she supported ending the dangerous Cold War idea of threatening to use nuclear weapons first. Warren, and a growing number of Democratic leaders in Congress, want to rule out first use of nuclear weapons because they want to make clear that fighting and “winning” a nuclear war is impossible. In reality, any first use of nuclear weapons against another nuclear-armed nation would yield a devastating response that vastly outweighs any perceived benefit of attacking first. That makes deterrence via retaliation the only credible role for U.S. nuclear weapons — pending the total elimination of nuclear weapons globally. The hard tasks of fighting and winning wars must remain in the conventional and other nonnuclear arenas. Far from providing security, increasing our reliance on the first use of nuclear weapons makes nuclear conflict more likely. Getting rid of first use would make us safer.
Adopting a nuclear No-First-Use (NFU) policy would be a straightforward way to nip this resurgent warfighting idea in the bud, enhancing U.S. and allied security and global stability. Calls for such a policy — one that clearly states that the United States will never be the first to use nuclear weapons — are growing. Warren has endorsed NFU, and former vice president Joe Biden championed a sole-purpose pledge that would make deterrence — presumably by retaliation and not first use — the only mission for U.S. nuclear forces. Making such a policy law over the objections of any president is probably politically impossible, but opinion surveys show NFU enjoys overwhelming public support. The fact that the issue came up at the debate shows that an overdue policy discussion about reducing the threat of nuclear weapons has cracked open.
Threatening the first use of nuclear weapons is not necessary, beneficial or credible. Russia and China possess secure second-strike forces capable of absorbing any first strike and retaliating ferociously against the United States or its allies. North Korea’s reliance on mobile missiles and underground tunnels means it would probably be able to respond to even a large-scale attack. And the reality is that the United States and its allies in NATO and East Asia can rule out nuclear first use because our conventional military forces can defeat any nuclear or nonnuclear adversary. For proof, look at how Russia has invoked nuclear threats in the face of our conventional capabilities. Moscow does not doubt our nuclear capabilities; they doubt their own conventional forces and compensate by issuing nuclear threats.
A thoughtful president would not even consider nuclear first use unless he or she was certain that the underlying intelligence supporting an attack was foolproof, that only nuclear weapons and not conventional or cyber weapons could do the job, that losses to innocent civilians would be “acceptable,” and that first use would not escalate to cataclysmic proportions. Perhaps some armchair strategist can spin up such far-fetched conditions, but in the real world, it just doesn’t hold up.
If the United States were to use nuclear weapons to respond to nonnuclear attacks, it would also lose the ability to rally global support to punish the attacking country. Even our staunchest allies would rightly be horrified. There are no credible contingencies where the first use of nuclear weapons would serve the immediate and long-term national security interest of the United States or its allies.
No one can say with 100 percent certainty that the threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation in response to chemical or biological attacks might not inhibit an adversary from using these weapons. And no one can claim conclusively that without nuclear threats, such weapons would be used more widely. But the theoretical possibility that nuclear coercion against chemical or biological threats might work must be weighed against the real, quantifiable and significant risks of threatening nuclear first use — and the dire humanitarian, environmental, economic, strategic and moral consequences of actual use. Policy should flow from that analysis, not imaginary scenarios resting on fantastical assumptions meant to minimize the risks and maximize the potential benefits.
A small but influential sect of true believers in nuclear warfighting often dismiss “no first use” as an agenda promoted by arms control or disarmament advocates. While a pledge not to use nuclear weapons first would open up new avenues for constructive arms control, the idea is not driven by peacenik impulses, but by a clear-eyed expert assessment of the risks incurred by first use and the benefits of maintaining a deterrent posture that eschews it. Forswearing first use would not only enhance stability but also could enable smarter investments in nuclear weapons, stabilize nuclear crises, raise the threshold of nuclear use, reduce the risk of initiating a nuclear strike on the basis of faulty intelligence, and open up a new avenue for controlling the dangerous and accelerating nuclear competition between Washington and Moscow. If the next president adopts this policy, they could then push the leaders of every other nuclear-armed state to do so (India and China already have). Anything less threatens to undermine the fragile logic of deterrence and could result in a nuclear catastrophe the world had hoped was left behind in the history books.