Time for a no-first-use policy
It will reduce the political value of nuclear weapons
With regard to controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been the cornerstone of US and world security for 30 years.Skip to next paragraph
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The treaty is a multilateral bargain. The nonnuclear weapon states agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons if the weapon states existing in 1968 - the US, USSR, UK, France, and China - pursued nuclear disarmament negotiations and shared the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology. Reaffirmed in 1995 when the treaty became permanent, the NPT bargain explains why today countless states are not armed with nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.
But the NPT agreement is in jeopardy. Many believe the nuclear weapon states didn't keep their bargain and will not do so in the future. The political value of nuclear weapons, encouraged by cold-war defense policies, remains high. Indeed, after last spring's nuclear weapons tests, the Indian prime minister said, "India is a big country now because it has demonstrated that it has nuclear weapons."
We face a dilemma. If the political value of nuclear weapons is not reduced, many nations will find them hard to resist. Moreover, obtaining these weapons is no longer difficult, thanks to simple and widely available 1945-era nuclear-weapon technology. Nuclear weapons could easily spread around the world and the NPT would fail. The proliferation nightmare predicted in the 1960s - before the NPT - would become reality.
Reducing the political value of nuclear weapons is the solution. Nuclear-weapon states must seek deep cuts in their nuclear weapon stockpiles as promised in 1995. Also, remaining nuclear weapons must only be used for "core deterrence" - deterring the use of nuclear weapons, not other weapons, like chemical or biological weapons - and the nuclear-weapon states should declare that they will not introduce nuclear weapons into future conflicts, which is to say, a no-first-use policy.
Shortly there will be an opportunity to implement these principles. In December, NATO began its first strategic review since the cold war's end. This exercise, set for completion by the April NATO summit, offers the chance to reassure the world that the major Western powers are committed to the NPT goals. Archaic cold-war language and defense doctrine in the 1991 strategic review document must be revised. This document extols the value of nuclear weapons and emphasizes their centrality to NATO security. Nuclear weapons are described as the "essential link" between North America and Europe, the "supreme guarantee" of NATO security. Similarly, long-standing NATO policy reserves the right to introduce nuclear weapons into future conflicts - a first-use doctrine.
Arguably the massive conventional weapons superiority of the old Warsaw Pact nations of Central Europe could only have been offset by the nuclear weapons of the US and NATO. The West used this rationale to support its right to use nuclear weapons first - to deter an overwhelming assault with conventional forces by the Warsaw Pact. Now, such a confrontation and its first-use rationale have disappeared.
At the time of the permanent extension of the NPT in 1995, the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China formally committed never to use - or threaten - nuclear weapons against nonnuclear-weapon states party to the NPT, now 181 countries.
In 1996, the World Court found this commitment legally binding. Thus, for most of the world, the first-use policy is inconsistent with this NPT-related commitment. Further, this commitment has no exception for chemical or biological weapons. These weapons should be deterred by NATO's overwhelming conventional forces.
For nuclear-weapon states like Russia and China, reserving the right of first nuclear attack is tantamount to a mutual suicide pact, because they would surely retaliate against each other.
If the strongest conventional military alliance in history continues to need to use nuclear weapons first to protect itself, on what principled basis can these weapons be denied to nations such as Iran, Egypt, and North Korea? The cold war is over. It's time to recognize the threat of nuclear proliferation as our greatest danger and to bring NATO policy into line with the NPT commitments of NATO's three nuclear-weapon state members.
*Thomas Graham Jr., former US special representative for the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is president of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security (LAWS). Elizabeth R. Rindskopf, former general counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency, is counsel to Bryan Cave LLP and executive vice president of LAWS.