During her time on the Detroit debate stage, Elizabeth Warren pledged that her administration would adopt a no-first-use (NFU) policy on nuclear weapons. There are very few policies she could advocate that would pose a greater danger to world peace.
Out of the nine states armed with nuclear weapons, only two have pledged themselves to an NFU policy: China and India. The rest have announced that they would only use nuclear arms defensively—which means that they would use their weapons only in a defensive war but not necessarily in response to a nuclear strike.
This defensive-use-only policy is what the United States adheres to right now. And it confers very real advantages on us which, in turn, means that it makes the world more stable.
The United States has a numerical nuclear advantage over every country except Russia. And while Russia has a slight advantage in total number of nuclear weapons, those weapons are at a strategic disadvantage with the American arsenal. Our nuclear weapons strategy exists as a triad—with weapons capable of being delivered from the land, sea, or air.
Thanks to our Naval supremacy, our sea-based nuclear weapons are a greater threat to our adversaries—including Russia—than theirs are to us. And having land-based weapons deployed in Europe means that in any nuclear exchange with Russia, America’s weapons would hit first, even if Russia initiated the exchange.
Add to this offensive advantage the fact that, according to the Department of Defense’s 2019 Missile Defense Review, the United States will eventually expand its missile defense system to our allied countries, which will make it easier to shoot down a missile before it reaches the United States—meaning that our anti-missile umbrella is growing.
The net result of all of this is that America’s nuclear superiority makes potential adversaries think twice before attacking us—or our allies—with nuclear weapons. And because we have not removed the possibility of using nuclear weapons in a defensive war, this deterrent effect then extends to conventional military attacks, too.
America—and America’s allies—are safer so long as we publicly retain the posture that we could use nuclear force in a defensive war.
And when America and her allies are safer, then the world is safer, more peaceful, and more prosperous.
History confirms this truth. There were several episodes during the Cold War during which the United States protected its allies from the Soviet Union and China through both the implicit and explicit threats of the first-use of nuclear force.
The first instance came in 1948. After the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Truman viewed nuclear weapons as terror weapons and did not include them in his strategic planning. Then, in 1948, the Soviet Union created a blockade around Berlin. In Europe, the Soviet Union had conventional superiority over the United States. The United States broke through the blockade to provide West Berliners with goods such as fuel, medicine, and food. The Soviets did not disrupt the blockade because even though they possessed superior conventional forces, the United States had deployed atomic-capable B-29 bombers to Europe in order to signal its willingness to strike the Soviet Union if the Soviets initiated a military conflict. The end result is that the resupplies worked. The blockade was broken. The people of Berlin lived free. No shots were fired. And peace was preserved.
In the East, the United States went to war against China in Korea. President Eisenhower came to the White House eager to end the war. But the Chinese wouldn’t budge. Eventually, Eisenhower issued several implicit nuclear threats—including during his state of the union address. And the war ended. Later, Mao Zedong wrote that “if we are not to be bullied in the present-day world, we cannot do without the [atomic] Bomb.” Which shows just how useful Eisenhower’s nuclear threats were in “bullying” China into ending the war.
But America’s nuclear weapons were still an advantage even once China acquired their own nukes. During the 1950s, China twice made moves in the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to gauge their ability to annex Taiwan. Again, the threats were deterred, both times without a shot being fired, thanks in large part to America’s nuclear umbrella.
As Mark Twain once said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Well, history didn’t end following the fall of the Soviet Union. It napped, and now it’s back. China has been increasingly threatening Taiwan over the past decade. Russia is again threatening Europe. There are good reasons to believe that removing the possibility of U.S. nuclear retaliation will encourage these threats and increase instability.
Moreover, if the United States were to unilaterally move to a No-First-Use policy, what would happen to our allies?
Would we then be willing to publicly extend our conventional security umbrella to our allies? And in an age of America-First Republicans and Code Pink Democrats, how seriously would that umbrella be regarded by potential adversaries? Again, threats are only useful policy tools if the other side believes there is a high likelihood of them being carried out. Who would believe, say, a conventional security guarantee issued by a president who disparages NATO while kow-towing to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un?
Which leads us to proliferation. Because everyone believes that a U.S. conventional force security guarantee is suspect, then smaller allied states will want to procure their own nuclear arsenals in order to guarantee their own security. (In fact, they are already talking about it.)
From the America First perspective, maybe this sounds like a good deal. Make them pay for their own damn nukes!
But the reality is that the country who provides the security umbrella gets to set the rules, and, just as importantly, control the spread of nuclear weapons. The costs of being the superpower are real. But they are far outweighed by the benefits.
If Senator Warren truly wants peace, she should reject the NFU policy. The United States, and the world, will both be better off.