A U.S. military aide carries the "president's emergency satchel," also know as "the football," with the nuclear launch codes, across the South Lawn of the White House.

A U.S. military aide carries the "president's emergency satchel," also know as "the football," with the nuclear launch codes, across the South Lawn of the White House. AP / Andrew Harnik

The Dangers of Nuclear Virtue Signaling

A no-first-use policy would reduce deterrence.

The Biden administration is reportedly weighing an unprecedented policy of nuclear “no first use,” a self-imposed restriction that the United States would never be the first to use a nuclear weapon in a conflict, no matter how great the national interest at stake. All previous administrations, Republican and Democratic, have rejected NFU polices because they recognized that the current policy of “calculated ambiguity” – as to when and in what circumstances the United States would employ nuclear weapons – is a useful uncertainty for adversaries to ponder, increasing the chance of deterrence. 

President Obama reportedly considered these issues twice: once at the beginning and once at the end of his time in office. The decision was the same each time – retain a high threshold for nuclear use, but do not make adversary planning easier, or encourage large scale attacks by ruling out nuclear use in a number of plausible extreme scenarios. This rejection of NFU stung the nuclear arms reduction community, so then-Vice President Biden gave a speech assuring them that both he and President Obama thought the United States should adopt a NFU policy, even though they did not do so officially

Now some Biden officials are looking to complete the task. They believe that if the United States adopts an NFU policy, then North Korea and other nuclear states would be less tempted to use their nuclear weapons first in a conflict, safe in the assurance that for all of America’s conventional power, at least they would not be struck by a nuclear preemptive strike. 

But in fact, a NFU pledge is the worst kind of policy: one that our allies believe damages their security, while our potential adversaries will not believe it. And that is under the best of circumstances. If potential adversaries do believe that the U.S. will not go nuclear, they may be more tempted to launch strategic non-nuclear attacks using large-scale conventional forces, chemical weapons, or even biological weapons, all while staying below the U.S. self-imposed threshold for nuclear use to defend itself and its allies and partners. 

The tragic irony of a U.S. NFU pledge is that it would make these kinds of strategic non-nuclear conflicts more likely, raising the likelihood of war and escalation – either deliberate or inadvertent – perhaps even to nuclear use. 

U.S. allies recognize this reality and have been crystal clear that they do not support a U.S. no first use pledge, as even former Obama administration officials have stated on multiple occasions. A U.S. NFU pledge would wreak havoc especially in our NATO alliance as not even the United Kingdom or France go so far as to adopt such a policy. Russian President Vladimir Putin would surely welcome such a split in allies’ nuclear policies as an opportunity to spread disunity and misinformation. 

Simple rhetoric, the sum total of a “no-first use” pledge, is not enough to fundamentally change an adversary’s behavior – even when backed by undeniable evidence. For example, after the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet defense and diplomatic officials gathered to discuss each other’s perceptions and intentions. Former U.S. officials asked their Soviet counterparts why they continued to rail against the “aggressive” NATO alliance in the 1980s when they knew from stolen NATO war plans – an intelligence coup – that NATO allies had no intention of invading Warsaw Pact or Soviet territory. Their answer was that even if the United States was sincere, NATO was an alliance of capitalist countries, who were by definition aggressive, and it was “hard to believe” that an organization with such economic potential “had only defensive plans.” 

Just as with NATO’s good intentions, a U.S. NFU pledge would fail to convince, because states like Russia, China, and North Korea have every incentive to believe the United States is lying – after all, that is what they would do. They adhere to Thomas Hobbes’ famous adage: “Force and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

The Biden administration can and should examine all questions of U.S. nuclear policy to ensure it is adaptable to deter current and future threats, but it should reject a nuclear no-first-use pledge as a dangerous policy that only invites disaster. 

Matthew R. Costlow is a Senior Analyst for the National Institute for Public Policy.