Beginning over half a century ago, successive US administrations, beginning with John F. Kennedy’s, have worked with both allies and adversaries in order to mitigate the risk that nuclear weapons pose not only to US national security but to the world.
Multilateral nuclear arms control agreements such as the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Clinton-era Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and, most recently, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, which addressed issues raised by the Iranian uranium enrichment program) have been integral parts of the architecture of a global nuclear nonproliferation regime recognized by Democratic and Republican presidents alike as a force for global stability.
These, along with bilateral arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union (later Russia), including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and 2010’s New START, were viewed, correctly, as being very much in the US national interest.
And then Trump came along.
In January 2018, the administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, which called for building greater numbers of nuclear weapons—including allegedly smaller, more usable, low-yield weapons. Critics fear the new Pentagon policy also provides the current US president with too broad a mandate to deploy these weapons. As Alexandra Bell of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation told NPR at the time, “The Trump plan actually puts multiple options on the table—nuclear weapon in response to a chemical attack, to a biological weapons attack, to an attack on civilians without a real description of where that threshold is and really widens the options for President Trump to use nuclear weapons.”
Then, of course, there is the problem of John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, who began his project of dismantling the global nuclear nonproliferation regime nearly two decades ago when, as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security under George W. Bush, he successfully spearheaded the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty, a decision that helped to create the new Cold War we now find ourselves in with Russia. Today, Bolton has wrought even more damage to US national security by unilaterally pulling out of both the JCPOA and the INF treaty, while signaling that both New START and the CTBT will soon also be scrapped.
What is the proper policy response to the blatant disregard shown by Trump and Bolton toward the security of the United States, our allies, and treaty cosignatories?
During the last round of presidential debates, Elizabeth Warren provided one answer. According to Warren, the United States should adopt a policy of “no-first use,” a pledge not to be the first to resort to nuclear weapons. In a speech last November, Warren explained that “to reduce the chances of a miscalculation or an accident, and to maintain our moral and diplomatic leadership in the world, we must be clear that deterrence is the sole purpose of our arsenal.” In January, Warren introduced a bill (S.272) that would make this official US policy. The bill has six cosponsors, including her 2020 primary rivals Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, and a companion bill was introduced in the House by Washington State Democrat Adam Smith. Presidential contenders Joe Biden and Tulsi Gabbard have also voiced their support of the policy.
Republicans and Democrats still tied to the dangerous and increasingly irrelevant foreign policy consensus were quick to criticize Warren. The 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, worried that announcing such a policy would “perversely encourage bad behavior in others.” Republican Representative Liz Cheney asked, “Which American cities and how many American citizens are you willing to sacrifice with your policy of forcing the US to absorb a nuclear attack before we can strike back?”
Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, says the proposal is popular among Democrats and progressive activists. “According to poll data,” says Solomon, “nearly 60 percent of Democrats want a ‘no first use’ policy. And progressive activists are glad to see that Warren has begun to think more deeply and speak more clearly about vital foreign policy matters.”
“Warren, and other candidates who support ‘no first use’ like Bernie Sanders,” Solomon tells me, “have an opportunity to educate the country on what’s really at stake. While it’s very far from a full explanation, the hallowed concept that US nuclear weapons exist only for the purpose of deterrence can be cited to challenge any opponents of moving to a ‘no first use’ policy.”
But, as Arms Control Association fellow and Nation defense correspondent Michael Klare points out, although “a ‘no first use’ declaration would be a very valuable step, and one to be wholeheartedly supported.… it needs to be accompanied by other measures, such as zero funding for new nuclear warheads.”
As of this writing, the United States and Russia possess roughly 93 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. The total world arsenal is estimated to be around 14,000 nuclear warheads (the numbers are necessarily estimates because of the secrecy involved and uncertainty regarding the numbers possessed by non-NPT-compliant states such as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea). According to Harvard University’s Elaine Scarry, should even one-one hundredth of the current arsenal be used in a nuclear exchange, 44 million people would die in the first few hours, and 1 billion people would perish in the first month.
A sane, post-Trump nuclear policy would place “no first use” at its center.