In July 2016, reports in U.S. newspapers indicated the Obama Administration considered adopting a declaratory policy stating that the United States would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in conflict. Subsequent reports, however, indicated that the United States was unlikely to adopt this particular change in U.S. declaratory policy before the end of the Obama Administration because both military and civilian officials in the Administration oppose the declaration of a “no first use” policy. The press reported that, during deliberations on the policy change, Pentagon officials argued that current ambiguity provides the President with options in a crisis. For example, Admiral Haney, the Commander in Chief of Strategic Command, noted that the shift could undermine deterrence and stability in an uncertain security environment. The reports stated that Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Carter also raised concerns about the possibility that a “no first use” policy could undermine the confidence and security of U.S. allies. The press reported that several U.S. allies also weighed in against the change in policy. Some in the U.S. Congress, like Senator Dianne Feinstein, argued that the only moral use for U.S. nuclear weapons is as a deterrent to their use. Others, including Representative Mac Thornberry and a number of Republican Senators, argued that changes in U.S. nuclear policy could lead to a more dangerous world by undermining nuclear deterrence and “shattering the trust” of U.S. allies.
The United States first used nuclear weapons more than 70 years ago on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fearing the threat from massive Soviet conventional forces and possible large-scale use of chemical and biological weapons, U.S. military and political leaders decided to keep the option to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Today, the United States in the world’s dominant global military power and the Soviet Union is long gone. The Cold War-era policy of not ruling out nuclear first-use poses a grave risk to the security of the United States and is not suitable for today’s global security and political environment.
The greatest threat to the United States and to any nation is from the enormous and indiscriminate destructive effects of nuclear weapons. It is in the interest of the United States that, as long as these weapons exist, all nuclear-armed states agree that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to respond to a nuclear attack by other nuclear-armed states and only when the survival of the state or one of its allies is at stake. It is time for the United States to adopt this policy.
In April 2009, President Barack Obama made clear that he sought “to put an end to Cold War thinking” and pledged to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”
On September 11, 2013, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, writing in The New York Times, issued “A Plea for Caution From Russia.” Putin sought to communicate directly with the American people, warning against U.S. and Western unilateral military action in Syria — in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens — without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council. Such an action, Putin warned, would be destabilizing, deepen the cycle of regional violence, and potentially throw “the entire system of international law and order out of balance.” Putin further chastised the United States for its alarming tendency to intervene militarily in overseas civil wars and implied that U.S. strategies for dealing with problem states were encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons. Putin’s plea: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”
We know that this “plea for caution” was nothing more than an effort to protect a Russian client state dressed up in the language of political and legal principle. How else can we understand Russia’s unilateral, unsanctioned military intervention in the Syria conflict in September 2015? Cynical? Maybe, but of even greater concern than Russian hypocrisy in the Middle East is its nuclear saber-rattling in Europe and elsewhere. On this issue, it is imperative that the Kremlin heed a genuine plea for caution from the United States and reconsider its policy of using the language — and practice — of nuclear force to coerce and intimidate. This policy truly does have the potential, to use Putin’s words, to be destabilizing and to undermine the international order. And it could set in motion responses that would heighten strategic competition and risk and, in the process, damage Russia’s own interests.