The Biden Administration And The Future Of ‘No First Use’ – Analysis


By Rajiv Nayan*

Will the United States (US) adopt the No First Use (NFU) policy? Those who had followed the Presidential/election campaign of Joe Biden and who generally read the formal and rhetorical statements of the leaders as truth, seemed optimistic. However, a closer scrutiny matched with the harsher reality or dynamics of the world politics and security is required. Biden made statements in favour of NFU during his Presidential elections and even before. He said during the campaign that the US should be pushing for NFU. In this context, he had put special emphasis on no use of nuclear-laden ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles). Biden, in general, expressed his views on it while discussing no exchange of nuclear weapons in the world. He underscored that a policy of NFU could be a step in that direction. He repeatedly talked about nuclear reduction.

After assuming Presidency, Biden seemingly wanted to translate his old personal NFU principles into the US policy, and possibly, as part of its nuclear doctrine. The ideas of nuclear arms control, nuclear security and nuclear disarmament kept featuring in several US official statements and joint statements issued with other countries.1 Even though nuclear arms control as an instrument of nuclear and strategic stability was underlined on many occasions when Russia–US bilateral relationship was discussed2, yet NFU has hardly become a key component of strategic or nuclear stability in the US–Russia partnership. 

Admittedly, the 16 June 2021 US–Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability did acknowledge, “Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”3 The joint statement also underscored the significance of “ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere”, and one of the tools envisaged was diminishing “the threat of nuclear war”.4

Media reports and writings published by Western think tanks inform that in the run-up to the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), Biden has tried to do an exercise on NFU as well. Through NPR, it seems, he wants to change the American approach to the use of nuclear weapons. The US government has officially stated on NPR and consultation of allies for it.5 Although no official statement has come regarding the exercise on NFU in the NPR, yet indications coming through the media reports and think tanks tell the world that allies are being consulted on the possible adoption of the NFU policy.   

Why is the Biden Administration consulting its allies for its national policy or NPR? It is doing so because of its commitment to preserve a united nuclear alliance and for maintaining its credibility at least in the near future. Biden’s entire campaign was centered on restoring the American leadership in the multilateral settings, including in security matters. The US is supposed to have meticulous consultations with its NATO partners on nuclear and arms control issues. The Administration noted: “We have declared our nuclear deterrents to the defence of [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] NATO and as long as there are nuclear weapons, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance. Our NATO Allies and partners will always be able to count on us, even as they continue to strengthen their own national forces.”6

The quiet exercise seemingly has not only resulted in some nervous response from the allies who share liberal or security values with the US but has also triggered debate within the policy community of the US and other Western countries on NFU, though this debate has been going on in a subdued manner for a long period. The allies were apparently sent a set of questionnaire to respond.  Quite interestingly, even Chinese media like the Global Times7 also joined the debate and reacted to Western media reports.

The Chinese media’s reaction tells a complex story about the unique position of the US in the world. It is one of the two countries which have been possessing more than 90 per cent of the declared arsenals of the world, and a decision about how to use nuclear weapons may have an extraordinary impact on global nuclear thinking and behaviour. China and its media are well aware of America’s hegemonic position even if the unipolar moment for the US is overlooked. China may be a challenger to the US but to influence and shape the world order, China understands that it has to undertake complex entanglement with the American decision-making process, possibly accepting the hierarchy in the global order. 

The responses, reactions and debate on NFU have brought to light several issues, some of which are lingering on for decades, some have been discussed in the recent past and others are reflection of the new issues and challenges tossed by the contemporary reality. The status-quoists argue for distancing from the policy of NFU, the arms control and disarmament group favour adopting the NFU, and some contend and predict a middle path in the form of either fundamental purpose or existential threats instead of NFU. In fact, inclusion of nuclear deterrence as the ‘sole purpose’ of nuclear weapons has been an old issue. Earlier the phrase ‘sole purpose’ was considered the middle path and it became quite intense in the run up to 2010 NPR. The Obama Administration somehow found an innovative way to skirt the issue.

The much talked about Financial Times report8 informed that the US allies had objected to the adoption of NFU. The report named some of the allies who opposed the NFU. These were: Australia, Germany, France, the UK and Japan. The basic contention of the allies apparently was that the change of the posture may “undermine long-established deterrence strategies aimed at Russia and China”.9 There is a fear that the adoption of NFU may lead to nuclearisation by the US allies such as Japan and South Korea. Undoubtedly, this fear does not have much basis because the adoption of NFU does not mean the withdrawal of nuclear protection umbrella or extended deterrence.

Some opponents maintain that the NFU is disturbing the allies but American adversaries may yet not find the posture credible.10 Some of the allies apprehend large-scale conventional strike, which they feel may be deterred only by ambiguity regarding the use of nuclear weapons. This will lead to a lose-lose situation for the US. The reports indicate that the US allies expect some kind of pre-emptive nuclear strike from the US, which will not happen if the US adopts NFU.  The US nuclear weapons policy to deter large-scale conventional and biological and chemical attacks to reassure its allies and partners does not mean the pre-emptive nuclear strike.

Some argue that China is fast increasing its nuclear arsenals (about 1,000 by 2030) as the 2021 Pentagon report notes, and the US, under START treaty, is limiting its deployable nuclear warheads to 1,50011, which could lead to a difficult security situation. The argument goes that the adoption of NFU or sole purpose will weaken nuclear deterrence as China will consider it a sign of weakness of the US. In such a situation it is believed that instead of reciprocating,12 China will be emboldened. The basic argument is that the removal of strategic ambiguity through NFU will dismantle American nuclear deterrence.

Proponents of NFU argue that by embracing it, the US will steer the world to a low risk, if not ‘no risk’ zone. It may reduce the chance of miscalculation and wrong signalling. NFU is also considered an effective tool to constrain a President like Trump in the future.13 Democrats and a section of the Republican Party dread a future scenario in which a President like Trump has nuclear briefcase and button. 

It is assumed that the US NFU policy will set an example for the world, and others may also be forced to imitate. The world will not have to encounter the danger of escalation to a level of nuclear exchange. The common refrain is that despite tall claims of its adversaries, the US has conventional superiority. It can achieve its strategic objectives without provoking any possibility of nuclear escalation. Advocates of NFU claim that the reduction of salience of the use of nuclear weapons may eventually result in realising the redundancy of nuclear weapons and the virtue of nuclear disarmament.

Considering the emerging trend, it can be easily predicted that the US is not going to adopt the NFU notwithstanding the legislation for the purpose introduced by some Democrat Congress members and the open letters sent to Japan or the US politicians. The Administration is also not going to adopt the narrowly or broadly defined ‘sole purpose’. Predominantly, the US policy making community sees ‘sole purpose’ as a sophisticated version of NFU. Some new phrases may be coined and a few new measures may be taken to convey the message that steps towards reducing nuclear risks have been taken. Such recommendatory measures14 are appearing on the websites of different think tanks.

To mitigate apprehensions of its allies, the US ought to exercise Expanded Multilateral Option. If a NFU treaty is concluded and all the nuclear weapon countries become parties to it, this could be an ideal situation. Otherwise, it should approach Russia and other nuclear weapon countries for developing an understanding on NFU, and have an arrangement similar to 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, popularly known as the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The allies of US may feel less threatened if a universal protocol exists. As for the use of nuclear weapons against an advanced conventional weapon or chemical or biological attack, it is a remote possibility. It would be better if US allies and opponents of NFU realise this soon.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.

*About the author: Rajiv Nayan is Senior Research Associate at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrrikar IDSA

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

One thought on “The Biden Administration And The Future Of ‘No First Use’ – Analysis

  • December 31, 2021 at 10:11 am

    Excellent summary


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