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Nuclear Weapons

Q&A: No First Use of Nuclear Weapons

by Jasmine Owens / Tara Drozdenko

Questions

What is a No First Use policy?

A No First Use (NFU) policy is a commitment by a country to never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.

Who has implemented a No First Use policy?

China: After its first nuclear test in 1964, China declared the first NFU policy. Today, it is the only nuclear weapon state to have declared an NFU policy with no conditions. China has called on other nuclear weapon states to follow suit and proposed an NFU treaty.

India: India too has declared an NFU policy, but there are conditions. India has asserted it will not use nuclear weapons first during a conflict unless attacked with biological or chemical weapons.

row of soldiers in hazmat gear

India conducted its first ever war game with a simulation drill of a fictitious nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) strike by an enemy, and decontamination carried out using modern equipment, Kamalpur village, Punjab, India.

Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images

Who reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first and why?

The United States: Through the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the U.S. has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against countries that don’t have them. For countries that do have nuclear weapons, the U.S. would consider using nuclear weapons first to defend the U.S. or its allies. The circumstances for nuclear first use are not defined, and the U.S. President has the sole authority to order a nuclear first strike. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has consistently opposed a U.S. NFU policy, as have U.S. allies in Asia. European and East Asian allies of the U.S. rely on the threat of a nuclear first strike as a way to deter regional, non-nuclear threats.

Russia: In 1982, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev pledged not to launch a nuclear first strike in a conflict. During the Cold War, NATO leaders did not believe this commitment, and in 1993 Russia did away with it. In a military doctrine released that year, Russia stated it would not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country unless it was allied with a nuclear country. Today, Russia’s nuclear policy states it will use nuclear weapons against attacks that threaten the country’s existence even if they are conventional attacks.  The policy also allows for nuclear use to retaliate against a nuclear attack or use of other types of weapons of mass destruction.

The United Kingdom: The U.K. has a relatively vague policy, stating it does not rule out anything.  The U.K. has in the past committed not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries abiding by the Nonproliferation Treaty.

France: France maintains its right to use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances. 

Pakistan: Pakistan has not adopted an NFU policy. Pakistan has also not established what circumstances would call for a nuclear strike and purposefully maintains this ambiguity.

Israel: Though Israel has nuclear weapons, it does not confirm nor deny that it has them. Because Israel refuses to talk about its nuclear weapons, it cannot be confirmed if Israel has an NFU policy or not.

North Korea: North Korea has not adopted an NFU policy. North Korea would consider launching a preemptive nuclear first strike on the U.S. and its allies if it thought an attack was imminent.

Why should a country adopt a No First Use policy?

NFU policies can reduce the number of scenarios that would result in the accidental or purposeful use of nuclear weapons. When a country declares an NFU policy, it signals it is confident in its conventional military abilities, and other countries can be assured that they do not need to use their nuclear weapons in a conflict.

As more countries adopt NFU policies, this can begin to establish an international norm of not using nuclear weapons first in a conflict. This is integral to a future of global nuclear disarmament. Once states feel secure, they can start to disarm, which is required under the NPT.

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Why should the U.S. adopt a No First Use policy?

The U.S. should adopt an NFU policy not only because it will reduce the stakes of conflict but also because it demonstrates global leadership on the part of the United States.

When the U.S. says it will not use nuclear weapons first, adversaries are less likely to take actions that increase the risk of nuclear conflict, like raising alert levels or launching nuclear weapons based solely on radar and satellite warning data. Actions like these could lead to miscalculations or accidental or unauthorized launches.

An NFU would lessen the desire for preemptive strikes. If adversaries do not feel threatened that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons on them at any moment, they too would not feel the need to use them first.

If the U.S. were to apply an NFU policy, it would in no way weaken its ability to deter nuclear threats. Even if the U.S. were attacked first, the surviving nuclear arsenal would be more than enough to retaliate against an adversary. This alone is enough to deter adversaries from launching attacks, nuclear or otherwise, against the U.S.

According to public polling, the majority of U.S. citizens are strongly against the U.S. carrying out a nuclear first strike. Recent studies have shown that 56% of the public is in support of the U.S. not using nuclear weapons unless it was attacked. As well, an NFU policy is an effective solution to limiting the president's sole authority to launch nuclear weapons.

Obama and Abe in front of the Hiroshima dome

U.S. President Obama shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Abe after laying a wreath and offering a prayer at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in 2016. Hiroshima was the site of a U.S. nuclear first strike during World War II, and Obama was the first sitting U.S. President to visit.  Obama's administration considered declaring a No First Use policy but ultimately did not take that step.

KIMIMASA MAYAMA/AFP/Getty Images

What steps have been taken to push for a U.S. No First Use policy?

American citizens have not been quiet in the debate around NFU policies. Dozens of resolutions have been passed by cities in California, New Mexico, North Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts. And, the State of California has passed 2 state-level resolutions. These resolutions call for NFU policies and reducing the president’s sole authority over the U.S. nuclear arsenal. There are also current resolutions pending in many other states.

In 2017, Representative Adam Smith (D-Wash) introduced a bill that would enact a U.S. NFU policy. Recently, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) joined Rep. Smith in the fight. Together they introduced the No First Use Act in the House and Senate. The bills consist of one sentence. "It is the policy of the United States to not use nuclear weapons first.”

Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass) introduced separate legislation in 2017 that would require Congress to give approval for any first-use of nuclear weapons. They announced at a press conference in January 2019 that they are reintroducing the legislation.

Ted Lieu speaking at the podium

On January 29, 2019, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D-Los Angeles County) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) announced the reintroduction of legislation to prevent the president from launching a nuclear first strike without congressional approval.

U.S. Government

What can I do?

As a citizen, you can take the lead on many important issues that affect your daily life. This issue is no different. If you are concerned about the United States using nuclear weapons first and starting an unwinnable nuclear war that would kill millions and destroy your community, you can speak out. Standing together, citizens can urge Congress to pass a No First Use policy. Organizations like Beyond the Bomb are asking elected officials and YOU – their constituent – to pledge support for No First Use. Now is the time for society to act together — civil society groups, members of Congress, Presidential candidates, faith leaders, and everyday people.

Why do countries oppose No First Use policies?

Some countries oppose NFU policies because they fear it may encourage adversaries to carry out non-nuclear attacks. With an NFU policy, adversaries may feel emboldened to attack conventionally because they know they will not be retaliated against with nuclear weapons. European and East Asian allies of the U.S. are against a U.S. NFU policy for this very reason. Others argue that if the U.S. were to implement an NFU policy, it could result in U.S. allies pursuing their own nuclear arsenal as a form of protection against threats from adversaries.

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