In October of last year, a report surfaced claiming that the White House was considering declaring a No First Use policy (NFU), a doctrine in which America would never use nuclear weapons first against another country. Financial Times, Axios and Nikkei have noted that “US allies in Asia and Europe are frantically dissuading America from choosing NFU.”
There are also additional reports that the Nuclear Posture Review, scheduled to be published in early 2022, could include either the NFU or “Sole Purpose''—a similar approach that restricts nuclear first strike to a very limited set of circumstances, the specifics of which remain unclear.
These developments do not come as a surprise. During the presidential campaign, President Biden asserted that America should use nuclear weapons only to deter or retaliate against a nuclear attack. In 2017, he stated: “It’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense."
The US must reject NFU and continue to maintain a first-use option for nuclear weapons; the rationale for keeping the first-use option remains clear and relevant. America’s nuclear weapons help allies deter conventional aggression by their much more powerful adversaries. During the Cold War, Washington’s strategic ambiguity over first-use was intended to prevent Soviet and Chinese tanks from rolling across Europe and Asia. NATO has steadfastly opposed NFU since it adopted “Flexible Response” in 1967. South Korea and Japan relinquished nuclear weapons development trusting America’s nuclear umbrella—the coverage of the umbrella, until now, was assumed to include conventional invasion.
In the era of Great Power Competition with Beijing and Moscow, the situation is not so different. Nuclear weapons’ greatest strength comes from the deterrence they entail, not their physical impact on a battlefield. Keeping the first-use option deters the outbreak of a conventional war, the devastating impact of which would not be justified by the mere fact that nuclear weapons were not deployed.
Granted, some argue that the prospect of a US first-strike could force the aggressor to escalate the conflict, which otherwise would have remained conventional, into a nuclear war. However, in such a drastic scenario, what difference would it make whether the United States uses nuclear weapons first, or waits for the enemy’s nuclear attack before delivering its own? Deterrence comes first. Previous US administrations, Democrats and Republicans, all opted for strategic ambiguity for that reason.
My country, South Korea, is under constant threat from North Korea’s nuclear, chemical, biological and conventional weapons. The strongest deterrence against all types of war is the unwavering pledge that North Korean aggression will be met with the end of the North Korean regime, by all means possible including a nuclear strike. Strategic ambiguity ironically grants a sense of certainty by deterring an enemy that fears obliteration. The US limits South Korea’s uranium enrichment; it also holds wartime operational control of the US-ROK allied forces. Many South Koreans do not dispute these temporary holds on our national sovereignty as they are inevitable compromises for an ironclad alliance. But we do expect reciprocity when it comes to extended deterrence.
The same goes for Japan. Tokyo renounced the right to go to war after WWII, and has shied away from developing full-fledged offensive capabilities. How can America request that Japan step up its security role in the Indo-Pacific, if it is planning to partially fold its nuclear umbrella? How would European countries react to American NFU when the Russians are developing hypersonic missiles, which can carry both nuclear and conventional warheads? What about America’s Middle Eastern partners which live under the threat of Iranian aggression?
I am not claiming that Washington should change nuclear policy just to align with Korean interests. South Korea is not the center of the world. Indeed, US nuclear policy should align with the American Grand Strategy—but that’s precisely why America should not declare NFU. As President Biden himself has repeatedly asserted, alliance management is at the core of the US Grand Strategy. In an international security environment where America is no longer the omnipresent “global policeman,” abandonment remains a chief concern for US allies whose security depends on Washington’s commitments. US allies, especially those who suspect they are not on the priority theater in the Great Power Competition, fear abandonment more than entrapment into unwanted conflicts with America’s adversaries. Even if the US seeks to reassure them by detaching the broader collective security commitments from NFU, the fear will simply aggravate.
I appreciate the noble cause behind NFU. President Obama also sought it, only to face protests from allies and his own cabinet members. NFU was part of a broader “Nuclear Free World” initiative, accompanied by calls for nuclear arms control and the first visit to Hiroshima by an American president. With the US spearheading such discussions, President Obama hoped to herald an era of a “Nuclear Free World.” Perhaps President Biden shares his aspirations, and for good reason. In an ideal world, we would not have to worry about a nuclear apocalypse, which will always remain a possibility as long as the nine nuclear powers reject wholesale denuclearization.
However, NFU cannot be a step towards a “Nuclear-Free World.” In fact, it could precipitate unwarranted nuclear proliferation. The urge for an independently nuclear South Korea already exists among Koreans. During South Korea’s 2021 presidential primary, the conservatives openly called for nuclear armament, should the US nuclear umbrella fail. Leading Korean politicians have also called for Washington’s reintroduction of US tactical nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula, a rejection of which would amplify demands of our own nuclear weapons program. An op-ed in the Washington Post advocating for arming South Korea with nuclear weapons was popular in Seoul, although few in Washington share this view.
A NFU declaration by the United States would embolden US allies to pursue their own nuclear armament. If one country does somehow develop nuclear weapons, it would certainly not be the last one to do so. A domino of nuclear proliferation would kickstart across different regions. A South Korean nuclear program would lead to Japan and Taiwan pursuing their own, which would in turn provoke China into an additional build-up. Watching the developments in East Asia, Saudi Arabia might quickly “import” nuclear weapons from Pakistan. And the contagious nuclear arms race would continue. This would mark the end of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime as we know it.
China and North Korea have already declared NFU. Beijing declared NFU in 1964, when it first developed nuclear weapons. North Korea made the announcement during the 7th Party Congress in 2016. What kind of moral satisfaction is the Biden administration hoping to get out of NFU, when it’s clear that their pledges don’t amount to much?
Perhaps President Biden is wondering why the US does not declare NFU when even China and North Korea already have. Think again. Pyongyang’s NFU pledge is virtually as trustworthy as its pledge to denuclearize. Even if the North Koreans do not actually launch nuclear missiles in a war, it could seek to leverage a nuclear-loaded Intercontinental Ballistic Missile targeting the US mainland into eliciting Washington’s concessions. In that scenario, what good is NFU?
China declared NFU in 1964 because it did not want to enter an unwinnable nuclear arms race. Over the last few years, Beijing has repeatedly blackmailed the US, Japan, and Australia with a “nuclear response” to their “provocations.” Most importantly, China has been aggrandizing and modernizing its nuclear arsenal. It would be naive to believe these efforts are purely to stock up second-strike capabilities, and not for a more credible first-strike threat.
President Biden declared that “America is Back” after four years of Trump. However, US credibility was severely dented this summer as a result of the Afghanistan withdrawal, which the administration justified by citing the pivot to Asia. NFU was surely not the recalibration US allies imagined when receiving that reasoning. The increasingly likely prospect of two-front conflicts in Taiwan and Ukraine are undermining confidence in US-led collective security. If President Biden truly wishes to reconsolidate US global leadership and focus on issues of utmost importance, he should reject the allure of No First Use or Sole Purpose.
Perhaps Washington could learn from former British Prime Minister Theresa May’s response when asked in the Parliament if she would be willing to authorize a nuclear strike that could “kill tens of millions of innocent lives:
“Yes. And I have to say to the honorable gentleman the whole point of a deterrent is that our enemies need to know that we would be prepared to use it.”