No First Use: Myths vs. Realities
No First Use policy is just common sense, and former military officials including former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command James Cartwright agree. But we know there are a lot of questions about how it would work. We recommend first learning more about No First Use from our main No First Use page and then reading through answers to some frequently asked questions before diving into the myths and realities. Below, you’ll find some helpful information for refuting common objections to No First Use.
Myth: Adopting a No First Use policy will undermine extended deterrence to U.S. allies and create a less stable security environment.
Reality: Adopting a No First Use policy will not reduce the United States’ commitment to extended deterrence. Extended deterrence is about much more than just nuclear weapons. Forward deployments of U.S. conventional forces paired with strong and unwavering political commitments play the most immediate roles in deterring aggression against the United States and its allies. The United States maintains thousands of troops and hundreds of ships in commands around the world to balance crisis zones and deter aggression. The United States employs advanced conventional capabilities including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tools and precision-guided weapons in conflicts, but also to help deter potential attacks. The United States’ robust conventional forces are more than sufficient to deter or counter non-nuclear attacks on U.S. allies, and conventional military threats are more credible than threats to use nuclear weapons first. Current and former military officials have emphasized the crucial role that U.S. conventional forces play in projecting power globally and credibly deterring aggression.
The credible U.S. second-strike capability is and will remain a deterrent to nuclear attack, but the threat of nuclear preemption is unnecessary and dangerous. If nuclear-armed adversaries believe that the United States would use nuclear weapons first, they will be incentivized to use their nuclear weapons before a devastating U.S. strike degrades the capability. This dynamic is destabilizing and increases the chance of a nuclear miscalculation.
Maintaining extended deterrence guarantees requires consistent communication and coordination. Any change to U.S. declaratory policy should be made after consultation with allies about why this change is in our collective security interest.
Myth: Allies will acquire their own nuclear weapons if they lose faith in the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence.
Reality: The financial, political, and security consequences of acquiring nuclear weapons are strong deterrents against nuclear proliferation among U.S. allies, as are their own legal obligations. U.S. allies understand that developing nuclear weapons in contravention of their Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations would severely disrupt alliance relationships and would certainly have a greater negative impact than a shift in U.S. declaratory policy. U.S. allies have no need to pursue nuclear weapons, as there is no reason to question the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence. An NFU policy will have no effect on the ability of the United States to deter threats to its allies’ security with its robust conventional forces and the threat of nuclear retaliation in response to a nuclear attack.
Myth: A U.S. NFU policy will not change policy in other nuclear weapon states.
Reality: The goal of an NFU policy is not to influence other nuclear weapons states. The goal of an NFU policy is to make it clear when and how the United States would consider using nuclear weapons. This clarity will help reduce the risk of miscalculation or inadvertent escalation in a crisis with a nuclear-armed adversary.
Adopting an NFU policy would be welcomed by non-nuclear weapon states, including U.S. allies, that are increasingly frustrated that nuclear weapon states have not made significant progress on their disarmament obligations as outlined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Myth: U.S. allies and adversaries will not believe a U.S. NFU policy.
Reality: Like any political commitment, the credibility of an NFU policy will rely on the actions the United States takes to back it up. In the long term, the United States can take steps to shift to a “deterrence-only” nuclear force posture. For example, de-alerting the land-based leg of the triad would work in conjunction with an NFU policy to improve stability in a crisis. Eventually, Washington could reevaluate the necessity of the ICBM force altogether. In the near-term, even if allies and adversaries are skeptical of a U.S. NFU policy at first, the commitment will create an incentive and opportunity for an adversary to communicate directly with the United States to confirm its intentions and reduce the risk of miscalculation in a crisis.