The Argument for No First Use

This Post was Originally Published in the 2017 Spring Edition of the Queen’s International Observer

On January 20th, the hands of the Doomsday clock hit 2 ½ minutes from ‘midnight’ and a global catastrophe.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist, founded by ex-Manhattan Project scientists, created the Doomsday clock in 1947 to symbolize the shared threat of nuclear weapons. The organization explained that President Trump’s “disturbing comments” about nuclear weapons and climate change prompted the decision to move the hands forward.

The President’s recent comments underscore the warning’s significance.

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes”

Trump tweeted this statement a few days before last Christmas in response to Putin’s own promise to beef up Russia’s nuclear capabilities.

“Let it be an arms race,” Trump later added, “we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all”

Trump’s hyperactive Twitter account should to be countered with realistic and constructive policy. This administration can reverse its tough-talk without contradicting its threatened proliferation. Instituting ‘No First Use’ nuclear policy, where a state refuses to be the first to fire its nuclear arsenal, can be an instance of real, commonsense international leadership.

Trump’s behavior has showcased his reckless and often contradictory foreign policy. The ‘progress’ so far has been too limited to warrant the word. In August, he questioned why the US cannot launch its nukes. He has since acknowledged, while trying to downplay tensions with Russia, that a nuclear holocaust “would be like no other” and a “bad thing.”

There are roughly 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world — Trump can launch about 6,800 of them.

This powder keg is a chilling reminder of the world’s most enduring existential threats. As the world teeters between resurgent right-wing nationalism and increased instability, national discussion and executive declaration spurred by concern citizens, can provide a sane alternative in ‘No First Use’ policy.

‘No First Use’ goes beyond Ivory Tower discussion and has real-world success.

China was the first to adopt the policy 1964, and has reiterated its commitment ever since. India followed in 1998. However, the world’s other nuclear powers have lagged behind.

The adoption of ‘No First Use’ by states may signal a willingness to cooperate with China and India as emerging global leaders. For Trump’s administration, it may help to smooth over recent gaffs, which including a phone call recognizing Taiwan. The call was controversial, blatantly ignoring the China’s ‘One China’ policy. The Chinese state claims there is only “China” — the mainland People’s Republic of China — and that the Republic of China or Taiwan is not an independent state.

Trump, perhaps excited by the recognition, broke a US foreign policy mainstay when he accepted the Taiwanese president’s congratulations. China’s peaceful transition into a global power is supported by careful policy, not ignorant ego boosting from a man who tweets through his security briefings.

Granted, He later acknowledged ‘One China’, but proactive action may speaker louder than a nervous correction. International peace between China and the US will define stability for the near future and ‘No First Use’ can support it.

While the policy supports international cooperation, it is not overly idealistic pacifism. It simply sets the terms of conflict and allows the administration to still project the strength that appealed to its supporters.

The ‘No First Use’ policy goes extends beyond an agreement to not launching nuclear weapons first. It decreases the likelihood of launching missiles in a crisis, whether by accident or deliberate action. [1]

Possible missteps ending in mass destruction are a real possibility — just look at recent history.

The last real scare of a nuclear weapons deployment was in 1995. Then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin opened a nuclear briefcase when a Norwegian rocket studying the Northern Lights was mistaken for a nuclear missile.

Yeltsin, a known drinker with several political blunders throughout his presidency, had the world in his hands.

Thankfully, he didn’t fire.

Adoption of the ‘No First Use’ has the potential to ease the risk-assessment in situations similar to the Norwegian Rocket Incident. Yeltsin could have known that the official position of the US, still its primary rival, was not to shoot first.

Furthermore, this policy would incentivize other countries to follow, ensuring international credibility and any nuclear power’s position as a responsible safeguard against possible exchanges. [2]

If this leadership is successful, a strong position could encourage an international treaty guaranteeing ‘No First Use’ and impede nuclear escalation, leaving room for further disarmament. [3]

The benefits even reach non-state actors. Scott D. Sagan, Stanford professor and nuclear proliferation expert, says that a presidential declaration could even indirectly dissuade nuclear terrorism. He argues individuals and governments may be less inclined to provide terrorist groups nuclear materials if a new moral standard is created. [4]

Barring this, a declaration could at least further marginalize any terrorist groups’ attempts at gaining a possible radioactive “dirty bomb”.

This has special value with Trump’s self-styled hardline on terror. His strong-man persona could contribute to what would be the ultimate deal: turning the doomsday clock’s hand back and capitalizing on American power. Conversely, a state like Pakistan or Russia adopting the policy may discourage possible American nuclear aggression and ensure its own national security.

Until then, it’s 2 ½ minutes to midnight.

[1] Gerson, Michael S. “No First Use : The Next Step for U.S. Nuclear Policy.” International Security 35, no. 2 (2010): 7–47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Guangqian, Peng, and Rong Yu. “‘Nuclear No-First-Use Revisited.” China Security 5, no. 1 (2009).

[4] Sagan, Scott D. 2009. “The Case for no First use.” Survival 51 (3): 163–182.