Still Waiting for “No First Use” Declaration from the USA

Arnd Jurgensen teaches international relations at the University of Toronto and is a director on the Science for Peace board.

Contributed article for Working Group on Nuclear Weapons.

It is unfortunately not unusual for a politician to break the promises they campaigned on to get elected. It is certainly not unusual in U.S. presidential politics. Many of us remember the 2008 election in which then candidate Obama promised, among other thing, to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the existence of which is an abominable blight on the reputation of the country. 14 years after his election, it is still in business. The current man in the White House campaigned on a promise to adopt a “no first use” policy in respect to the U.S. nuclear arsenal, stating that its sole purpose was deterrence and retaliation against a nuclear attack on the U.S. or it’s allies. As the near disaster of the “Able Archer” nuclear exercises in 1983, which were interpreted by the USSR as cover for an actual attack, demonstrated, the adoption of such a policy by the U.S. could significantly lower international tensions and thus the chances that a nuclear exchange could result from miscalculation. As the only state on the planet ever to have made use of nuclear weapons, the adoption of this policy by the U.S. would do much to improve its image on the international stage as well.

Lamentably, if not predictably, this promise has gone unfulfilled. The U.S. government issued its periodic National Security Strategy last month. This was followed shortly thereafter by the Department of Defense releasing its own National Defense Strategy and its Nuclear Posture Review. The latter ominously states that “deterrence “, is not the sole but merely the “fundamental” justification of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, leaving the door open to first use. While the review claims that all options for U.S. declaratory policy including “no first use” where considered, the adoption of “no first use”, it was concluded “would result in an unacceptable level of risk….” It goes on to state that: ”The United States affirms that its nuclear forces deter all forms of strategic attack…nuclear weapons are required to deter not only to nuclear attack but also a narrow range of other high consequence strategic-level attacks.“ Secretary of Defense Wendy Sherman took it further stating that the U.S.: "will use the full range of U.S. defense capabilities to defend our allies, including nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities."

In this regard the U.S. goes well beyond the policies of either of its chief global rivals. China has unambiguously maintained a no first use policy in regard to its far smaller nuclear arsenal.

October 19, China’s ambassador for disarmament affairs, Li Song, reiterated that: "China has solemnly committed to no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally."

Russia does not have a “no first use” policy but stops short of using them in circumstances that do not pose an existential threat to the Russian state, ruling out their use to defend allies.

The U.S., it needs to be understood, is not like North Korea or Iran, a weak state with powerful enemies, for which a nuclear deterrent is a guarantee of respect for their sovereignty and the survival of their regimes. It is the most powerful state on the planet, at least in military, if no longer in economic terms. It’s military accounts for more than 40% of global military expenditures, exceeding the outlays of the next 7 largest militaries, several of which are U.S. allies, combined. It operates approximately 800 military bases outside of the U.S. in over 70 countries, while its nearest peer competitor, China aside from bases on atolls in the South China Sea, has one, in Djbouti, adjacent to a much larger U.S. base. U.S. aircraft carrier groups patrol all corners of the globe, a capacity to project power no other state possesses.

A good question regarding the continuation of this policy is whether it reflects a rationality based on strategic considerations of U.S. security or, is a reflection of the power of domestic actors often described as the military/industrial/media/think tank/intelligence complex, or more colloquially the military industrial complex (MIC). There are good reasons to believe the latter. The MIC is what in American Government circles is called an “iron triangle”, an overlap of the interests of, in this case, the Department of Defense (more funding…), the arms industry (more weapons systems and thus $) and Congress (more employment on military bases and industry…in their congressional districts) Certainly there is a lot of money to be made from the nuclear modernization program announced by President Obama, with an estimated price-tag of $1 trillion over 30 years. That estimate has since increased to $1.5 trillion. A very telling component of the picture is the fate of the land-based ICBM’s that make up the most dangerous part of the nuclear triad (land, air and sea). These are most dangerous because everyone knows where they are. Since they are therefore among the top targets of the adversary, in the event of a suspected or actual nuclear attack they are subject to the “use it or lose it” dynamic. If the attack turns out to be an error, their launch could be the beginning of the end. They serve no useful purpose that air or submarine based nuclear weapons don’t accomplish without this risk and many have advocated for their elimination, even among supporters of nuclear weapons. It appears that the sole reason for the continuation of their existence has to do with the employment they generate in the states in which they are located.

The administration of Joe Biden may have had the intention of making the 4th NPR an actual review as opposed to the rubber stamp of its predecessors. Biden appointed Leonore Tomero, a highly experienced former aide on the House Armed Services Committee, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for nuclear and missile defense policy. The work on the review began July 2021 but by September she was pushed out, her position was split in two and she was told she could not have another position in the Pentagon. Stephen Schwartz of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist wrote: “Tomero had run afoul of the permanent nuclear bureaucracy (or theocracy, given this cadre’s better-known appellation: the nuclear priesthood), the largely male, largely white, largely conservative group of civilian and military officials who for more than 76 years have designed, built, tested, operated, maintained, and upgraded US nuclear weapons and prepared, programmed, and practiced numerous highly-detailed war plans across a variety of threat scenarios.” When in Congressional hearings she stated that she would consider the risks and benefits of current declaratory policy, assess alternative options, and not impose any personal views she might have, Senator Tom Cotton ended his questioning, complaining he was “now troubled by the direction” of the NPR.

Given the rising tensions between the U.S. and its primary competitors, China and Russia, and the aggressive policies the U.S. is pursuing against both by the provision of arms to Taiwan and Ukraine respectively, this posture should be deeply worrisome to us all. As a fellow member of NATO, an alliance dominated by the U.S., the government of Canada has a responsibility to speak out against the adoption of policies that put its citizens in extreme danger. How dangerous? General Hyten, former head of U.S. Strategic Command put it bluntly in 2018: “So we played a big exercise just this last February, and the exercise, let’s just say that you do a Global Thunder exercise in U.S. Strategic Command. I just want you to ask in your own head, how do you think it ends? It ends the same way every time. It does. It ends bad. And the bad meaning it ends with global nuclear war.” If that isn’t scary enough, the current commander of U.S. Strategic Command Navy Admiral Charles A. Richard was recently quoted saying: “This Ukrainian crisis that we’re in right now, this is just the warmup…The big one is coming. And it isn’t going to be very long before we’re going to get tested in ways we haven’t been tested in a long time.” Have we ever been tested in dealing with global nuclear war?