As reported in this paper on Aug. 17, there is strong opposition in Japanese government circles as well as among some nuclear policy experts to the possible declaration of a “no first use” policy by the U.S. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is said to have conveyed personally to Adm. Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, that deterrence against countries such as North Korea will be jeopardized and the risks of conflict would rise. If these reports are true, Abe needs new advisers. North Korea can be razed and turned into a car park with massive U.S. conventional strikes — there is no need to use nukes.

A “pure” no first use policy limits the use of nuclear weapons to retaliation after nuclear attacks. A qualified no first use policy permits nuclear retaliation against attack by any weapon of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, biological), but not conventional weapons. Successive official documents have explained the role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a wide range of threats on the U.S. and its allies, with WMD or large-scale conventional forces. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review did acknowledge that the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks was continuing to diminish as the ability to deal with them using increasingly accurate and powerful conventional munitions increases.

Now there is a buzz in Washington policy circles and the arms control community that in the endgame of his presidency, Barack Obama may, as commander-in-chief, unilaterally declare, perhaps during his final address to the U.N. General Assembly next month, either a pure or a qualified no first use U.S. nuclear policy. Contrary to Tokyo’s officialdom, such a policy change would make Japan, the region and the world safer. The balance of risks and gains decisively favors a no first use policy. A continuation of the status quo rests on underestimating the dangers of first-use policies while exaggerating the risks of no first use.

The U.S. is in a league of its own, and will remain so for decades to come, in the massive superiority of conventional forces. This has bred cockiness to the extent of promoting what Obama calls the Washington playbook of militarized responses to any foreign policy crisis, even those where U.S. vital interests are not engaged.

The comforting security blanket of first use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. to defend an ally under attack by conventional weapons is bereft of any operational meaning. Allies who fear attacks by China or Russia and insist on first use policy as insurance are asking the U.S. to cross the nuclear threshold against an enemy with a guaranteed capacity to survive an initial nuclear strike and hit back at the U.S. with nuclear weapons. Any use of nuclear weapons in such circumstances would open the gates to hell whose all-consuming flames would know no geographical borders.

The logic of survival dictates that a nuclear war resulting from a first use of nuclear weapons would be infinitely worse than defeat in a conventional war, even for a weaker state in a conflict dyad like, say, Pakistan vis-a-vis India. Fear of a rapid nuclear escalation makes the threat of first use against nuclear rivals is not credible and a non-credible threat has little deterrent value.

No sensible policymaker in Beijing or Tokyo wants a war. But incidents in the maritime flashpoints have given cause for alarm that the two could find themselves locked in an escalation spiral beyond their control. A similar spiral has once again become imaginable also in Europe since the 2014 Ukraine crisis. Government leaders in Beijing (as in Tokyo) will scramble desperately to contain the spiraling crisis because they fear the military and economic costs of a China-Japan war. No Chinese military planner or national security decision-maker is likely to contemplate a U.S. nuclear first strike as having anything other than zero prospect.

At present Russia and the U.S. hold about 1,800 nuclear warheads in a state of high operational alert, ready to launch on warning of an incoming enemy attack. In an escalating crisis directly between China and the U.S., Beijing policymakers confront two additional complications compared to China-Japan.

First, they worry that growing U.S. military capability is making some Americans believe they can decapitate China’s retaliatory nuclear capability by a surprise attack, and are considering putting some of China’s own nuclear warheads on high alert to strengthen U.S. belief in China’s retaliatory second-strike capability. This would almost certainly lead to an abandonment of China’s no first use policy.

Second, with U.S. first use policy, Beijing might give in earlier to the temptation to strike first in order to preempt a U.S. attack.

Conversely, with a no first use policy, Washington could consider de-alerting all nuclear weapons, withdrawing those stationed in Europe and eliminating land-based strategic missiles. It could also lead a push with China and India to negotiate a global convention on no first use. With a declaratory U.S. policy backed by follow-up operational measures, others would be a little bit more confident about not being subjected to a disarming first strike.

I am not aware of any other weapon, known to be extremely destructive, that has been held in the arsenals of several countries without use for seven decades, despite many wars in which some of the countries with the powerful weapons were defeated by others without them.

One of the biggest reasons for nuclear non-use is the moral cost of crossing the nuclear threshold against non-nuclear threats. Developments in conventional munitions technology and miniaturization of nuclear weapons have begun to blur the boundary between the two. In addition, irresponsible reminders by Russian leaders since the Ukraine crisis of their nuclear arsenal have sought to legitimize the role of nuclear weapons.

Against this worrying backdrop, if the U.S. joins China and India in declaring a no first use policy, the conventional-nuclear psychological firewall will be reinforced and the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons will be strengthened.

Certainty is rarely obtainable in strategic calculations. Instead we are talking about balance of probabilities and how to recompute them to accentuate the positives and mute the risks. A no first use policy no more guarantees non use than a first use policy guarantees use. But a no first use nuclear policy does lower nuclear temptations, deepens strategic stability and reduces nuclear threats by comparison to first use.

Few real risks, some significant strategic benefits: a small step forward for Obama, a giant leap for humanity. A no first use nuclear policy should be a no brainer.

Ramesh Thakur, a professor in the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, is co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

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