For decades the issue of a commitment by nuclear armed states not be first users of nuclear weapons in a conflict has been a subject of discussion in international fora dealing with security and arms control. If adopted by all nuclear weapons states, the concept of the No First Use (NFU), although of a declaratory nature, would give a decisive impulse to nuclear disarmament since it would logically make it impossible to start a nuclear war. This concept was relaunched and discussed in depth during the Obama administration but was not adopted.
As an alternative, the concept which defined deterrence as the ‘sole purpose’ of nuclear weapon was also discussed. But even this vaguer and less understandable concept was not taken on board by the USA. What the Obama administration did adopt was the commitment not to use nuclear weapons if attacked with weapons other than nuclear weapons (conventional, chemical or biological).
The issue of the NFU is making a comeback today as the Pentagon will have to announce the new administration’s posture on the role of nuclear weapons in the US security strategy. The issue has also taken a parliamentary dimension as Senator Margaret Warren and House of Representatives Armed Services Commission Chairman, Adam Smith, recently presented Congress with a No First Use Act: a piece of legislation stating that “it is the policy of United States not to use nuclear weapons first”.
Other prominent Democratic members of Congress have co-sponsored this initiative, ardently supported by former Defense Secretary William Perry. Previously, Congressmen Lieu and Markey had presented a Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act which required a US president to get approval from Congress to use nuclear weapons. Even more significantly, in January 2017, then Vice President Biden, spoke out in favour of adopting this concept and he did so also during his presidential campaign.
India and China have long since individually adopted the concept of no-first use and consequently these Asian rivals have implicitly undertaken the commitment not to use nuclear weapons against each other. In fact, they have refrained from employing such weapons, despite the two wars fought and the persistent high military tension and skirmishes at their common border. On the Indo-Pakistani front the situation is different because Islamabad openly declares that it would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons first, even in response to an Indian conventional attack, because it feels a considerable strategic imbalance with New Delhi.
During the Cold War the principle of NFU had been adopted by the Soviet Union, then confident of having a conventional superiority over NATO. Subsequently the Russian Federation abandoned this doctrine according to the perception that it had lost its conventional superiority.
Despite the EU’s thirty year of Common Foreign and Security Policy and although subject to nuclear threats, European Union member states have never been able to reach significant common positions on nuclear weapons nor have they had substantive discussions on the NFU. This inability reflects different positions within the EU states on nuclear weapons.
After Brexit, France remains the only nuclear armed country within the Union. Most EU states are protected by the US/NATO “nuclear umbrella”. Others, notably Austria, Ireland, Sweden maintain a neutralist and anti-nuclear imprint. This lack of homogeneity allows Europe to actively operate only in the less controversial field of nuclear non-proliferation but not on nuclear disarmament.
NATO, on the other hand, has never endorsed the NFU doctrine and maintains that nuclear ambiguity strengthens the credibility of its deterrence. France and the UK are at the forefront in supporting such an approach, although it is hardly credible that they would effectively use the atomic bomb first and run the risk of a devastating response by an adversary like Russia. It is no coincidence that the pillars of their nuclear deterrents are their strategic submarines equipped with multi-warhead missiles which are the classic second-strike weapons. The more destabilizing tactical nuclear weapons, in particular those with a “hybrid” nuclear and conventional capability, available to other nuclear armed countries are believed to be more suitable to strike first.
Under the Democratic administrations, the USA has shown greater openness towards the concept of NFU. In this regard the review of the US nuclear posture currently underway offers an opportunity to extend the debate to other governments and in particular to those that have greater nuclear responsibilities. The coming weeks and months will be decisive and the open debate both in Congress and within the US Administration will be key for the future of this debate, that should not be ignored by heads of state and government when they meet at the NATO Summit in Brussels on June 14.
The NFU also needs to be raised during the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference scheduled in New York next August. On the 26th of May a No-First-Use Global Campaign meeting will bring together civil society, legislators, academics to discuss strategies, share initiatives and build cooperation with a focus on adoption and implementation of NFU.
A new ‘wind of change’ is blowing that could move nuclear-armed states to agree never to initiate a nuclear war, an opportunity that must not be missed.
Carlo Trezza was Italy’s ambassador for Disarmament in Geneva and chaired the Conference on Disarmament, the UN secretary general’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Affairs and the Missile Technology Control Regime.