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Why Obama Needs a Second Thought on “No First Use”

Ballistic missile launches. (Reuters/Indian Defence Research and Development Organization/Handout)

Ballistic missile launches. (Reuters/Indian Defence Research and Development Organization/Handout)

In April 2009, President Barack Obama outlined his vision of “a world without nuclear weapons” and promised that “the United States will take concrete steps” towards this goal. Now, six months before his term ends, Obama is putting forth his final effort to achieve this vision. The White House is considering declaring a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons: the U.S. would refrain from using its nuclear arsenal in any conflict unless other states had already used theirs. However, the no first use protocol is facing opposition from within Congress, U.S. allies, and even Cabinet members of the administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

Why Consider “No First Use”?

The President is hoping to reduce the role of nuclear weapons domestically and internationally by declaring the no first use policy. U.S. nuclear strategy holds that the “fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exists, is to deter nuclear attack on the United states, our allies, and partners”. This means that preemption cannot be ruled out as an option. Internationally, India, China, and North Korea are the only three declared nuclear powers that have pledged to a no first use policy.

No first use supporters argue that the current U.S. nuclear agenda is still rooted in a Cold War mentality—derived from a bipolar U.S.-Soviet dynamic—and thus it needs revision. U.S. and NATO’s nuclear weapons were aimed at destroying opponents’ own nuclear forces and command centers, to level against numerically superior forces of the Warsaw Pact in the European theater. Among these U.S. nuclear aim points, nearly 1,000 are in Russia, 500 are in China, and the rest in North Korea and Iran, though Tehran is not a declared nuclear power nor it is believed to possess even clandestinely assembled devices at this time.

Other security concerns, such as non-state actors, cyber warfare, and mass refugee migration, are impossible and unreasonable to deter by nuclear weapons. It is a firm believe that this Cold War strategy needs an update for U.S. to interact in today’s complex and multipolar world.

After all, nuclear doctrines are not un-revisable. Other nuclear states, particularly Russia and India, have revised their no first use policy in the 1990s and 2003. This change might be undesirable, but it is not impossible for states to do so under critical threats.

What are the Challenges?

Opponents of the no first use policy are concerned about the U.S.’ deterrence credibility. Preserving the option to use nuclear weapons preemptively effectively deters adversaries from launching nuclear weapons against the U.S. and its allies. It leaves calculated ambiguity to prevent adversaries from using other forms of WMDs, including chemical and biological weapons.

Without a first strike option, adversaries’ may judge that their aggressive behaviors or even conventional attacks against the U.S. and its allies are unlikely to lead to a nuclear response. They could gamble that they would achieve their limited objectives before the missiles would fly and then seek to end hostilities. For this reason, no first use hurts the U.S.’ deterrence posture.

Several U.S. allies, including Japan, South Korea, France and Britain have all have expressed concerns over their own national security and they are not unwarranted in these concerns. Even though Washington views nuclear weapons as its last resort, the allies, on the other hand, are planning their own security strategies under the American “nuclear umbrella”.

Japan and South Korea are particular worried about North Korea, with its continuous nuclear-testing and missile-launches, and also a nuclear-armed China with aggressive territorial claims—despite both countries no first use doctrines. In recent years, Pyongyang has not only continued to build up its nuclear capacities, but also show its willingness to attack its neighbors.

North Korea launched three missiles off its east coastline late July. Two weeks later, it test-fired another two, one of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone waters. South Korean joint chief of staff officials criticized these hostile launches as the North’s “ambition to attack neighboring countries”, and the Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani commented these as “serious threats” to its national security. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe specifically pointed out that the deterrence legitimacy over North Korea could suffer once the U.S. declares a no first use policy. By that time, the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific would be further disrupted.

The U.S. would still be committed to nonconventional retaliation against any North Korea attacks targeting Japan and South Korea. A handful of U.S. allies in Asia (Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines) “have based their own national security strategies on that pledge, including their willingness to forego indigenous development of nuclear weapons”. However, adopting the no first use policy could trigger these allies’ worst fears—that Washington is stepping away from its security commitments. South Korea and the U.S. already agreed to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in response to hostile behaviors from North Korea. Japan can easily transition its nuclear capability from its energy sector to defense if it decides to do so. The subsequent desires to increase every nation’s own deterrents would drag the region into an arms race for both conventional and nuclear weapons.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Brad Roberts has already pointed this out that the U.S. should “temper its expectations”, and should “refrain from unilateral steps that supposedly put pressure on others to join us”. Maybe the U.S. is ready to adopt a “No First Use” doctrine today, but its allies are not.

To read more on this topic:

Bruce G. Blair. How Obama could revolutionize nuclear weapons strategy before he goes. Politico Magazine. (June 22, 2016)

Department of Defense. Nuclear Posture Review Report. (April 2010)

James E. Cartwright & Bruce G. Blair. End the first-use policy for Nuclear weapons. The New York Times. (August 14, 2016)

Jonathan D. Pollack & Richard C. Bush. Before moving to “no first use,” think about Northeast Asia. The Brookings Institution. (July 20, 2016)

Josh Rogin. U.S. allies unite to bloc Obama’s nuclear “legacy”. The Washington Post. (August 14, 2016)

Matthew Kroenig. Approaching critical mass: Asia’s multipolar nuclear future. The National Bureau of Asian Research. (June 2016, 2016)



Wenjun Zeng

Wenjun Zeng is a Chinese national focusing on the regional security and trust-building in the Asia-Pacific. She has worked with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and U.S. diplomats and scholars to create Track II dialogue platforms on Asia-Pacific security issues. She is also an analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy that identifies and provides solutions to global risks.

Wenjun earned her Bachelor in Arts degree in Psychology and International Studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her Master of Arts degree in Politics from New York University.