A ‘no first use’ U.S. nuclear policy could save the world

My latest piece in Independent Australia

THE RISKS of nuclear war are greater than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not only is Vladimir Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons to stave off defeat in Ukraine, but the North Korean Government has continued to develop and test both missiles and nuclear warheads.

U.S. President Joe Biden has responded to Putin’s threats with admirable calm so far, playing down the risk that Putin will use nuclear weapons and avoiding any threat of escalation.

Leaks from the U.S. Administration have indicated that the response to a tactical nuclear weapon would be massive but confined to conventional weapons. 

Yet the official doctrine of the U.S. would call for the use of nuclear weapons in exactly the situation faced by Putin today: a conventional war going badly.

With Russia and the U.S. currently on the warpath during the escalating conflict in Ukraine, the world is again at serious risk of nuclear disaster.

Unlike Russia and China, the U.S. military maintains the right to a “flexible response” in which nuclear weapons may be used against an adversary who hasn’t used nuclear weapons and doesn’t pose an existential threat to the U.S. itself [1]

If Putin is threatened with massive retaliation for breaking a supposed taboo on nuclear weapons, the U.S. should commit itself to “no first use” of nuclear weapons. But why hasn’t this happened already?

Throughout the Cold War, U.S. military planning was based on the assumption that the Soviet Union would have a massive advantage in conventional weaponry, most notably because of its tens of thousands of tanks and other armoured vehicles, not to mention millions of artillery shells.

In the scenario favoured by Pentagon planners, these forces would pour the Fulda Gap, on the border between East and West Germany, rapidly overwhelming North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. 

Only the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons would even the balance. The term “tactical” might sound moderately comforting, but some of these weapons would have many times the explosive power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They would obliterate the advancing forces.

The end of the Cold War shifted the frontier hundreds of kilometres to the east, but the planners found another “gap” to worry about near Suwałki in Poland. And, as Putin rebuilt the crumbling armed forces he had inherited, it seemed that he still had at least 3,000 modern tanks, with another 10,000 in reserve.

But the failed invasion of Ukraine has shown Putin’s army to be a paper tiger. More than half of Russia’s front-line tanks have already been destroyed or captured by Ukraine. Indeed, Russia has been the biggest single supplier of tanks and armoured vehicles to the Ukrainian armed forces.

Meanwhile, the vast reserves turned out to be largely illusory. Thousands of tanks had been left to rust in the open air or pillaged for parts to be sold on the black market. By June, Russia was reduced to deploying ancient T-62 tanks, first produced in the 1960s and then updated in the 1980s. These have already been destroyed in large numbers.

After failing to conquer its near neighbour, there is no prospect that Russia could launch a successful conventional attack on NATO. There is, therefore, no need for tactical nuclear weapons. The same is true of a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan by China.

By adopting a “no first use” policy, the U.S. could greatly reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear war or an unintended process of escalation. Such a policy would certainly face resistance from the U.S. military, which never saw a weapons system it didn’t find essential — as it would from the Republican party.

The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that don’t ban the use of landmines. The Trump Administration revoked restrictions on the use of landmines and sought to develop new ones.

Still, there is hope. Richard Nixon, of all people, committed the U.S. to ban chemical weapons and stocks were finally destroyed under George W Bush.

And the Biden Administration has moved towards a ban on landmines. A “no first use” commitment once made, would be difficult to roll back, even for a future Trump Administration.

fn1. Putin has used annexation as a way of claiming that resisting Russia’s aggression represents an existential threat

11 thoughts on “A ‘no first use’ U.S. nuclear policy could save the world

  1. The war in Ukraine really demands an explanation of why the US has been badgering other NATO countries for years to make substantial increases in their defence spending. What potential threats are they supposed to face which would defeat their current militaries? It would be cynical to suggest Washington simply wants to drum up more business for the world’s biggest arms dealer.

  2. The ban on landmines is limited to the *antipersonnel* sort. Heavier mines against tanks and other vehicles are still allowed everywhere. They can’t be set off accidentally by a child.

  3. My crazy homecountry seems to be willing to spend massivly on air defense now in the hope it would somehow be possible to fend off a nuclear strike that way….

  4. Russia has stated that they reserve the right to use their nuclear weapons in the event that their military become so degraded as to present a threat Russia’s security.

    That’s the catch-22 paradox shaping foreign policy.

  5. It seems that the talk of nuclear war has been a distraction, the virtually unrestricted and unrestrained bombardment, ranging from sophisticated cruise missiles to unsophisticated Iranian rockets over an extensive period of time, has broken Ukraine. .

    In this respect Putin has achieved his objective, the destruction of Ukraine without any meaningful attack on Russia.

    Talk of peace on Russian terms seems bizarre.

  6. rog +1 “In this respect Putin has achieved his objective, the destruction of Ukraine without any meaningful attack on Russia.”

    Hasn’t destroyed Ukraine solidarity it seems.

    Any ideas on the physical repair bill now? Time frame to a functioning Ukraine?

    I’ve seen estimates from $350bn to $1tn and or $4+bn a week. Excluding a nuclear attack.

    The mental /health repair bill will be huge and ongoing.

  7. kenalovell: how so? Not only is the US’s bad guy of the weak trying to subjugate and genocide a medium-sized country, but many people in US military circles clearly believed that Russia was so powerful it could easily conquer Ukraine. That was what they were writing and telling journalists in February. It turns out that Ukraine is stronger and Russia is weaker than they believed, but its clear that they believed that the Russian military was a threat to its western neighbours when they were calling for more military spending in the EU.

    Its also clear that the German military in particular would not be prepared if Russia had invaded a EU member, and Germany has announced a massive increase in military spending in response. Invading the Baltic states or a Swedish island would have been stupid and self-destructive, but not necessarily any more stupid and self-destructive than what Russia is actually doing.

  8. The other thing about military spending as a percentage of GDP is that yes its an excuse for pork (most of Russia’s budget is stolen; Germany and France have similar military spending, but France wants and gets many more capabilities), but its *simple* enough to fit in a newspaper article. I suspect that behind the scenes, the talk is about things which are better measures of military capability, but when talking to the disinterested public officials use percentage of GDP.

  9. Oh please, no one with half a brain ever believed Russias conventional army could be a threat to central Europe during the last 20 years. Besides, nukes. Russia would lose that one on population sice alone, no matter how small or incompetent the armies at the biggining of the war on the other side are…..

    Dysfunctional high budget armies of highly developed nations, and they all are dysfunctional in embarassing ways are pretty much unavoidable since they just serve no rational purpose. Military people doing a semi decent job would just advocate cutting their own budget and avoiding all kinds of adventures. Developed nation armies with a purpose in contrast would function at similar levels as their underlying societies as a whole.

    Yes there are “military experts” and the like running arround tv that would tell a very different story everywhere, not just in the particular jingoist places. And those are rarely dumb or low educated, their idenitiy and paychecks however always depend on holding those positions.

  10. hix: it would be nice if officials all had a magic wand to dell who has a brain and is using it, but they do not. My sources before the war were saying that Russia did not have enough forces in position to conquer Ukraine, but my understanding is that a lot of people in US military and government circles were saying that Russia would quickly win. Now, “Russia is powerful and aggressive” is a convenient belief if your job is to justify your force’s budget, but it turned out to be half true.

    “Central Europe” is misleading since the usual scenarios are Russia attacking one of the Baltic states or maybe the Swedish islands in the Baltic.

    If the question is “why did the US keep pushing other NATO members to spend more on the military?” I think the answer is “a lot of people in US military circles convinced themselves that Russia was a great land power, and until Russia got into a war with a medium-sized country there was no way to be sure.” One of the ways that wars worked in the European great-power system is that they showed the *actual* ranking of power.

  11. hix: I would agree that its not clear what most North Atlantic countries get from having a military which can fight in distant parts of the world, and that western European militaries designed to defend Europe (on the Finnish or Polish model) might not be very expensive. Some people in France and the UK like the feeling of being world-striding imperialists, but they could just watch patriotic TV shows or join a reenactment group.

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