With only six months to go in the Oval Office, President Obama is contemplating “fundamental change” to U.S. national security policy: a declaration of “no first use” regarding nuclear weapons.
Such a declaration would forswear using any item in the U.S. nuclear arsenal unless we are hit first by a nuke attack.
“No first use” may sound appealing. After all, who wants to drop the big one? But unilaterally taking the first-strike option off the table would significantly lower the security of the U.S. and its allies.
The U.S. maintains a nuclear force not to blow up the world, but to keep the world from plunging into ruinous global war. One of its main purposes, then, is deterrence.
For this reason, “no first use” is a misnomer. We have used our nuclear weapons with success every day since the dawn of the nuclear age. No other weapons system has such a track record.
Advocates of the “no first use” policy also miss the fact that current policy helps protect us from many types of large-scale attacks. Biological and chemical weapons can be as lethal and destructive as a nuclear weapons attack. Even a well-executed cyberattack — for example, one that takes down a large swath of our energy grid or communications systems — could place our nation in a vulnerable position that would forever alter our way of life.
To declare that the U.S. will retaliate with nukes only if attacked with nuclear weapons is to ignore a spectrum of crippling scenarios that adversaries would ponder more freely should the “no first use” policy be implemented. Conventional weapons simply do not have the same deterrent effect as nukes — a fact painfully demonstrated throughout the 20th century. Our adversaries must know that we reserve a nuclear option to deal with the imminent threat of any type of catastrophic attack — nuclear or otherwise.
Advocates of the “no first use” policy betray a lack of appreciation for the history of warfare and a lack of humility before the future. We cannot know whether the U.S. will find itself in a situation that would require use of a nuclear weapon to prevent an even larger catastrophe.
However unpleasant such thoughts are, let us not forget that we came to such a conclusion during World War II, when we chose to use nuclear weapons against Japan rather than continue the devastating war conventionally. That decision saved at least a half-million American lives and possibly millions of Japanese.
No U.S. president would ever make the decision lightly to use nuclear weapons in conflict. But to think that a situation requiring first strike could never arise is arrogant and imprudent.
To make matters worse, a “no first use” policy would undermine U.S. nonproliferation goals. Over 30 allies rely on the U.S. nuclear deterrent, but most are technologically capable of developing their own nuclear weapons. Some, like Japan, could do so within weeks. Yet they have forgone developing nuclear weapons as a result of U.S. assurances. This is a good thing, because the fewer nuclear players there are, the smaller the potential for miscalculation.
But our non-nuclear allies find themselves in an increasingly insecure environment. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has threatened to use nukes to retain Crimea and eastern Ukraine and suggested that proposition holds vis-a-vis several of our NATO allies as well. Meanwhile, North Korea repeatedly threatens to drown South Korea and Japan in a sea of fire.
Just six years ago, the Obama administration concluded a comprehensive assessment of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Even though it saw the world as a far more benign place than it turned out to be (e.g., Russia, the administration declared, was no longer an adversary), it did not adopt a “no first use” policy.
Since then, security trends have worsened for the U.S. and our allies. Changing U.S. nuclear weapons policy now would only embolden our enemies and leave us less safe.
• Michaela Dodge is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.
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