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Nuclear Weapons

Where Would Europe Stand on a U.S. No First Use Policy?

by Maxwell Downman

Opposition remains firm, but there are things we can do.

In 2016, President Obama considered a U.S. pledge to never use nuclear weapons first. U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia reportedly opposed this move and sent high-level delegations to lobby in Washington. Allies feared that without the threat of nuclear first use countries like Russia and North Korea—maybe even China—would push the boundary of acceptable behavior. There was also opposition to the policy change inside the U.S. government. In the end, the United States’ first use policy remained unchanged.

Still, support for a No First Use (NFU) policy has grown steadily in Democratic circles since President Obama left office. NFU has featured in campaign pledges from nine Democratic candidates, including Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. It's possible that the United States could have a NFU pledge after the 2020 election.

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In private conversations, European officials remain firm in opposing a NFU policy.  The security situation in Europe has deteriorated since 2016. There is a high level of distrust between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia. And, many governments see the threat of nuclear first use as important for deterrence. They also see no reason to reassure Russia when they are convinced of its bad intentions. 

Europe has a long-standing anxiety about whether the United States would really risk Boston for Berlin. This worry is now more complex given the Trump Presidency. President Trump has shown lackluster support for NATO’s commitment to collective defense. And, President Trump is willing to make loose nuclear threats. Nuclear risk is squarely back on the European agenda, in a way not seen since the Cold War.

Fire and Fury

Trump threatens North Korea with "fire and fury the likes of which this world has never seen before."

Because of this, many European officials and experts are thinking more about ways to reduce misunderstanding and miscalculation between Russia and NATO. Optimizing the balance between transparency and ambiguity about nuclear doctrine is one way to do this. Transparency and ambiguity exist on a continuum. Too much transparency risks encouraging an adversary to engage in brinkmanship. Too much ambiguity can drive an arms race and crisis instability.

Right now both Russia and NATO nuclear countries are purposefully ambiguous about their nuclear doctrines. This is driving a security spiral.

Right now both Russia and NATO nuclear countries are purposefully ambiguous about their nuclear doctrines. This is driving a security spiral. And, both sides are shaping their military doctrines with the worst-case scenarios in mind. The ongoing disagreements about whether Russia holds an ‘escalate to de-escalate policy’—and, in consequence, how the United States should respond—are a perfect example. 

Declaring NFU could be one way to significantly reduce ambiguity. A U.S. President could take that step without European approval. But, this would force the other nuclear countries in NATO—France and the United Kingdom—to choose whether to follow suit. Would they keep NATO’s de facto declaratory policy internally consistent and declare NFU as well? Or would they keep the option of first use, complicating the strategic picture for Russia further and increasing the risks of misperception?

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If NFU is a step too far for Europeans in the current context, Europe and the United States could develop a comprehensive risk reduction agenda together. This doesn’t mean giving up on NFU. But there are intermediate steps that could add clarity to NATO signaling.

To this end, NATO could adopt its own Alliance declaratory policy. Currently, the Alliance relies on the independent declaratory policies of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Some believe that the differences between these three nuclear doctrines strengthen deterrence by causing confusion in the minds of adversaries. But, it is easy to see how a strategy based on confusion could bring its own dangers in a crisis. A NATO declaratory policy that puts restraint front and center could also bring benefits.

soldier with painted face

A soldier of the Polish Army sits in a tank as a NATO flag flies behind during the NATO Noble Jump military exercises of the VJTF forces on June 18, 2015 in Zagan, Poland. The VJTF, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, is NATO's response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Troops from Germany, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Belgium were among those taking part. 

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There are a number of steps NATO could take in this direction. For example,  NATO could outline that the sole purpose of its nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear threats. Rather than undermine the Alliance, clearer signals would help to stabilize the relationship with Russia. Or, NATO could explicitly state that it would only use nuclear weapons in ‘extreme circumstances’. This would be particularly helpful given concerns that the threshold for nuclear use is being lowered.

With nuclear risks in Europe on the rise, taking steps to clarify nuclear doctrine is all the more urgent. European support for NFU still feels far off. But, there are many things that NATO can do to reduce unhelpful ambiguity around its doctrine.

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This content was developed in collaboration with the British American Security Information Council.

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