‘No first use’ debate heats up

Now that the new nuclear arms reduction treaty between the US and Russia is safely tucked up in bed we have to ask “What next?”

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Wed 30 Mar 2011, 9:22 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:51 AM

There are a number of imperatives: to agree to further sharp cuts in nuclear armouries and this time including the UK, France, China and Israel, a Test Ban Treaty, a ban on the further stockpiling of fissile material, getting rid of short range missiles based in Europe, agreeing to joint NATO-Russian anti-missile defences in Europe and, not least, burying the doctrine of “No First Use”.

An agreement on the “No First Use” (NFU) doctrine would make the protagonists agree that none of them would be the first to use nuclear weapons, that they would only use them in case of a nuclear attack. For years the Soviet Union had such a policy. But a few years ago its successor state, Russia, rescinded it. The US has rejected a “No First Use” policy all along and there are no indications that President Barack Obama is seeking to change it.

This means if there were an attack with conventional weapons or biological and chemical weapons the defender would face no legal restrictions on using its nuclear weapons to counter it.

This is a dangerous game. In a crisis it would increase the chances of accidental, unauthorised or deliberate use of nuclear weapons. In a future crisis, the fear- real or imagined- that the US might attempt a disarming first strike increases the possibility of nuclear escalation.

As recently as the presidency of George W. Bush the value of the doctrine of “First Use” was dusted off again. He talked about pre-emptive and preventive war, just as policy makers had at the height of the Cold War when the US considered first strike options against the Soviet Union during the Berlin crisis and also against China’s infant bomb programme.

One of the arguments popular with the Bush administration was the use of nuclear weapons to destroy hard and deeply buried targets, as with North Korea and perhaps with Iran. Another was the need to deter the use of other weapons of mass destruction- biological and chemical weapons.

Just before the start of the First Gulf War, at the time of the presidency of George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker met Iraq’s Foreign Minister. Baker wrote in his memoirs, “I deliberately left the impression that the use of chemical or biological agents by Iraq would invite tactical nuclear retaliation.” (Baker elsewhere in his memoirs says this was a bluff. The US would not have used nuclear weapons.)

Why should a country need to threaten “First Use” when it has an all-powerful conventional military on which it spends more than all other countries put together? Could the US be sure that a nuclear attack would be a 100 per cent successful? What if it failed to destroy all the enemy’s weapons of mass destruction? Then the enemy would retaliate. Increasingly, countries with such weapons are deploying mobile missiles extremely hard to locate. “First Use” would be impotent when an adversary possesses submerged nuclear-armed submarines.

A “No First Use” Treaty would clearly enhance stability. First, it would help decrease opponents’ trepidations about a US first strike, and so decrease the possibility of weapons being used accidentally or inadvertently as the enemy would feel compelled to keep its missiles on a permanent hair trigger alert. This is not a “soft option”. This is common sense. Towards the end of the Cold War a bunch of eminent American statesman, McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, Robert McNamara and Gerard Smith- in an influential article in Foreign Affairs-j advocated that NATO adopt NFU. “There is no way for anyone to have any confidence that [“First Use”] nuclear action will not lead to further and more damaging exchanges”, they wrote.

At the moment the Obama administration appears to be resting on its laurels. Having got the nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia in the bag it looks like coasting along at least to the next election. But why should North Korea, Pakistan, India and China, Israel and perhaps Iran make any move to limit the ambitions of their nuclear armoury when the US, Russia, the UK, France have done so little?

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London

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