The US is currently engaging in yet another debate about whether it should shift to a No-First-Use, or NFU, nuclear policy. The last time the US debated this, about a decade ago under the Barack Obama administration, it decided not to make such a radical shift. Whether it will make the shift now is ultimately up to President Joe Biden and his chief advisors, irrespective of how different players in the Washington national security bureaucracy see their narrower organisational interests. That said, the international political conditions today are much less propitious to such a shift.
NFU is only a declaratory policy: countries commit to not using nuclear weapons first unless they are attacked with nuclear weapons. India and China have made such declarations, though neither is entirely clear or straightforward. For example, there are questions about whether China’s NFU policy extends to territories it claims: does it cover Arunachal Pradesh and Taiwan because China considers these as its own territories? Similarly, India’s NFU pledge makes exceptions too, by claiming the right to nuclear retaliation for chemical or biological weapons attacks. And of course, NFU policies can’t be adjudicated: as unilateral pledges, they can be changed or violated whenever the country desires. Nothing prevents a country with a declared NFU policy from using nuclear weapons first.
Nevertheless, NFU policies can make for a more stable nuclear deployment posture because it reduces the pressure on nuclear command and control and increases the safety and security of nuclear weapons. This is because, with an NFU policy, there is no requirement for keeping your nuclear forces on hair-trigger alerts, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Nuclear weapons can even be kept disassembled, as India reportedly does, with missiles not mated with warheads, and even the fissile material component of the warhead kept separate from the rest of the warhead. This decreases the likelihood of accidental nuclear explosions, a considerable benefit when dealing with such destructive weapons. An NFU-based posture can also permit weapons to be held away from their launch points, in centralised depots, which can be better secured against theft or accidents. These provide additional benefits of crisis because such relatively relaxed posture where weapons are not primed for launch reduce mutual fear that the other side may launch an attack. Not surprisingly, this has been touted as one of the most important reasons why the US should adopt NFU.
Who benefits from NFU
Despite these benefits, NFU is not necessarily the best policy for all nuclear powers. The policy may not work for countries that fear an existential threat from even conventional warfare. Israel and Pakistan are the best examples: both countries worry that their adversaries can potentially overwhelm them even in a conventional war, extinguishing them as nation-states. It is irrelevant whether their fears are exaggerated or not, what matters is that they fear for their survival even in a conventional war. For these countries, NFU makes no sense because they believe their survival is dependent on being able to threaten to launch a nuclear attack to forestall such an outcome.
However, NFU policies work for India and China because these are large countries who face no existential threats other than from a nuclear attack. Thus, the role of nuclear weapons can be limited to deterring such nuclear attacks, which can be accomplished by the threat of nuclear retaliation after suffering a nuclear attack. This applies to Russia and the US too. But Russia gave up its NFU because of the deterioration of its conventional military capabilities, though it is difficult to rationalise that it faces any existential threat. More recently, Russia appears to be using nuclear weapons to deter any Western interference as it engages in aggressive policies towards its smaller neighbours, much the same way that Pakistan sought to use nuclear weapons as a screen behind which it could engage in terrorism against India.
American case is different
The US faces a different problem. As a large, relatively geographically isolated country that cannot be overwhelmed in a conventional war by any other power, it should be an ideal candidate for adopting NFU. Supporters of an American NFU policy have made the US’s conventional military superiority a key argument. The problem, however, is that US has a ‘special role’ for its nuclear weapons: a commitment to its allies that includes the promise that American nuclear weapons will also be used to defend allies. Because these allies are weaker in conventional military power than their regional adversaries – West European NATO allies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and now Russia, or Japan and Australia facing China – they expect that the US will be willing to use the threat of nuclear use or at least be ambiguous about how it would respond in order to deter attacks.
These allies have opposed a US shift to NFU because it could mean a dilution of US commitment. For example, although NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg side-stepped questions on the domestic NFU debate, he clearly said that “NATO will remain a nuclear alliance”, with nuclear sharing. Similarly, multiple news reports have claimed that officials and analysts from US allies, particularly Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, are concerned about the possibility that the US would shift to an NFU posture. Biden’s NFU plans have also led to domestic opposition from conservatives, though this is less likely to be a factor in Biden’s decision-making.
What US needs to look out for
Though an American debate, this will affect Indian security too. An American shift to NFU could not come at a worse time. Though some Indian nuclear specialists have welcomed the idea – and India has long championed NFU internationally – this comes at a time when both China and Russia are engaged in aggressive behaviour towards their smaller neighbours. These are also countries with which the US has treaty commitments. A US shift towards NFU under these conditions would be seen as dilution of the US security commitment.
Though many US allies are not capable of building their own nuclear weapons, some like Japan are. Tokyo could well decide that having its own nuclear weapons is a safer bet than depending on foreign commitments, especially when the US strategic community is debating whether it might not be better for the US to abandon Taiwan in order to avoid a fight with China. Note that Taiwan did have a nuclear weapons programme that the US destroyed. Though a nuclear Japan will not be a threat to India as such, it could heighten tensions across the region and even possibly set off a chain reaction that could end the non-proliferation regime itself, something definitely not in India’s interest.
Even more importantly, both China and Russia question US willpower and commitment. In addition, the almost messianic Chinese belief that it is now at the point of replacing the US, in Asia if not the global system, along with its incredibly fast-growing military capabilities that includes an expanding nuclear arsenal, makes Beijing an unpredictable power. India, and the region, is already dealing with a difficult China, and the last thing we need is for Beijing to get additional confidence in its power. A world that is already tottering on the edge of chaos is not the time for strategic experiments with uncertain outcomes.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)