Nuclear Weapons Aren’t Just For the Worst Case Scenario

Barack Obama is contemplating a revolutionary — and exceedingly dangerous — change to U.S. nuclear policy.

(FILES) A picture taken in 1971 shows a nuclear explosion in Mururoa atoll. France said on March 24, 2009 it will compensate 150,000 victims of nuclear testing carried out in the 1960s in French Polynesia and Algeria, after decades of denying its responsibility. An initial sum of 10 million euros (14 million dollars) has been set aside for military and civilian staff as well as local populations who fell ill from radiation exposure, Defence Minister Herve Morin told Le Figaro newspaper. AFP PHOTO FILES / STRINGER (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
(FILES) A picture taken in 1971 shows a nuclear explosion in Mururoa atoll. France said on March 24, 2009 it will compensate 150,000 victims of nuclear testing carried out in the 1960s in French Polynesia and Algeria, after decades of denying its responsibility. An initial sum of 10 million euros (14 million dollars) has been set aside for military and civilian staff as well as local populations who fell ill from radiation exposure, Defence Minister Herve Morin told Le Figaro newspaper. AFP PHOTO FILES / STRINGER (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Recent reports suggest that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump insistently asked an anonymous foreign-policy expert why the United States should not use nuclear weapons more readily. This has led to a chorus of voices decrying the way in which Trump is reported to have spoken about the nuclear option, with many insisting the United States should only ever employ nuclear weapons in retaliation after an opponent has used them first.

It is certainly right that such terrible weapons should only be used in extreme circumstances (a point of view Trump appears to have expressed earlier this year), but the conventional wisdom is wrong in suggesting the United States should under no circumstances be the first to use nuclear arms.

This controversy is not merely another spark of the campaign season, for, according to news reports, President Barack Obama himself is considering implementing a “no-first-use” pledge regarding nuclear weapons — that is, a promise never to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Such a pledge would be exceedingly unwise.

Nuclear weapons are horrible instruments of destruction, but they are also associated with the longest period of major-power peace in human history. And they only work because potentially ambitious states believe their use is plausible enough that starting a war or escalating one against a nuclear-armed state or its allies would just be too risky to countenance. The point of reserving the right to use nuclear weapons first (which, it must be emphasized, is different from a policy of preemption or heavy reliance on them) is not to convey a madman’s itchy trigger finger on the button. Rather, its purpose is to communicate clearly to any potential aggressor that attacking one’s vital interests too harshly or successfully — even without resorting to nuclear weapons — risks prompting a devastating nuclear response, something that, at scale, is far more costly than any realistic gains.

A no-first-use pledge would undermine this pacifying logic. If the policy were believed, then it would make the world safe for conventional war. Since potential aggressors would write the risk of nuclear use down to zero, they would feel they could safely start and wage fierce conventional wars.

Conventional wars can be small, quick, and decisive, which is why they can also be appealing — just ask Napoleon, James Polk, Otto von Bismarck, or Moshe Dayan. But they can also escalate dramatically and unpredictably, especially when major powers are involved. Thus, the most likely route to nuclear use is via a nasty conventional war, as happened in World War II. In such circumstances, high-minded pledges made in peacetime may well seem foolish or too burdensome.

A believable no-first-use pledge would likely raise, rather than diminish, the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used by lightening the shadow of nuclear weapons over the decision-making of potential combatants. Better for everyone to think as carefully and clearly as possible about nuclear weapons before a war is underway.

Alternatively, if the no-first-use pledge were not believed, what would the point of such a promise be other than diplomatic window dressing?

It is for these reasons that the United States has never adopted a no-first-use policy. During the Cold War, the United States relied on its nuclear deterrent to compensate for perceived Soviet and Warsaw Pact conventional advantages in Europe. But even in the post-Cold War period of American military supremacy, when Washington sought to diminish its strategic reliance on nuclear weapons, it judged the future was too uncertain to dispense with the reserved right to go first. While other countries such as China and India have declared no-first-use policies (though there is a great deal of skepticism about how reliable Beijing’s pledge is), Washington and the allies that depend on its nuclear umbrella have always recognized that a no-first-use pledge by the United States would be unwise because of the breadth of defense commitments it has assumed. If the U.S. nuclear arsenal were solely designed to deter attacks on the continental United States, a no-first-use pledge might have more merit, as launching such an assault would be incredibly difficult. But Washington also seeks to deter attacks on its allies in areas like Eastern Europe and East Asia, where U.S. conventional superiority is far less assured.

The main reason why a no-first-use pledge does not make sense for Washington, then, is the reality that the United States cannot always expect to maintain the military upper hand everywhere, and a no-first-use pledge is not the kind of commitment a nation can turn on and off without damage to its credibility and reputation.

But can anyone plausibly challenge the United States in a conventional war in the near to medium term? The answer is yes; China might well be able to. Russia and North Korea are also very dangerous to the United States and its allies in their own ways, and Moscow could plausibly hope to take on the United States conventionally if it could localize a conflict in its “near abroad” and keep it short, but neither can reasonably expect to challenge the United States in a serious, prolonged conventional war and hope to prevail.

But China at some point in the not-too-distant future might. A range of authoritative sources are showing that the conventional military balance of power between the United States and China with respect to points of contention in East Asia such as Taiwan and the South and East China Seas is, at the very least, becoming increasingly competitive. Beijing is fielding more and more highly capable forces in the Western Pacific that present a growing challenge to America’s ability to effectively project military power in the region.

The days are therefore passing when the United States could easily swipe away any effort by the People’s Liberation Army at power projection in the Western Pacific. Instead, any future fight in the region between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China on the other would be hard and nasty. And the trend lines are not moving in a good direction. Indeed, within a decade, China might be in a position where it could reasonably expect to confront a U.S. ally or partner in the Western Pacific and hope to prevail if the conflict remained relatively limited.

If the United States adds to this a credible guarantee that it would not use nuclear weapons first, it would strengthen China’s confidence that it could wage a short, sharp conventional war and gain from it, just as such confidence is rising and becoming more plausible to decision-makers in Beijing already contemplating the use of force in the region. According to a recent Reuters report, for instance, influential voices in the Chinese military establishment are already pushing for firmer security policies and even military action in the South China Sea — and this at a time when the United States still enjoys the conventional upper hand. These voices are likely to seem more credible and appealing in the councils of power in Beijing as Chinese military advantages grow, and they would only be emboldened by a U.S. statement that it will not use nuclear weapons first. A no-first-use pledge would therefore increase the chances of war in Asia.

Indeed, rather than excluding the possibility of American nuclear first use, Washington should be emphasizing it. This does not mean the United States should ever use its nuclear weapons lightly. Rather, Beijing should simply understand that, even if it is able to gain conventional military advantages in the Western Pacific, Washington is prepared to seriously consider using nuclear weapons first to vindicate its own vital interests and those of its allies — for instance with respect to their territorial integrity. More than that, Beijing should understand clearly that if it pushes forward with its military buildup, it will spur the United States to rely even more on its nuclear forces to compensate — and, if that is not enough, the real possibility that U.S. allies will be impelled to pursue nuclear arsenals of their own.

Communicating all this to Beijing does not require any Strangelovian contortions. But it does require the United States to firmly and consistently say (or otherwise communicate) that it is prepared to use nuclear weapons first if truly pressed; to build the forces, such as a next-generation standoff cruise missile and intercontinental ballistic missile, useful in making such a declaration credible; and to exercise and deploy its forces in ways that show Beijing its earnestness about such a declaration.

Such a policy is more likely to contribute to peace and stability than a no-first-use pledge. China is very unlikely to turn away from its effort to achieve military dominance in East Asia and the Western Pacific based on appeals to goodwill or competitions in moral preening. What might actually work is persuading Beijing that succeeding in this effort is likely to backfire by resulting in little to no gain and a more menacing and dangerous set of opposing militaries. Does China want a U.S. defense posture for Asia that relies more on nuclear weapons? A proliferated Asia-Pacific? Washington must make Beijing understand that if it continues its military buildup, those are very real probabilities.

A no-first-use pledge would suggest to Beijing just the opposite — that continuing to build up, and perhaps even using, its military power may not be sufficiently dangerous or costly after all. That would be far worse for Asia and America than a perhaps unfashionable reminder that there will be a grim nuclear risk if Beijing ever seeks to capitalize on its growing conventional military strength.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Elbridge Colby is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, during which time he served as the lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy and as the principal Pentagon representative in the development of the 2017 National Security Strategy.