NATO--and Peace--Would Gain From a No-First-Use Policy

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We believe it is critical for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to reconsider its nuclear policy and agree to a no-first-use provision on nuclear weapons. Such a policy would be a signal to the international community that the most powerful nations in the world are prepared to accept that nuclear weapons have no utility other than to deter a nuclear-armed opponent from their use. It also would help strengthen a nuclear nonproliferation regime severely shaken by the U.S. Senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The arguments in favor of NATO adopting a nuclear no-first-use policy, which we presented last September in joint testimony before the German Bundestag, are compelling. NATO’s current policy potentially contravenes commitments by the nuclear weapons states never to use nuclear weapons against a nonnuclear state that is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

These security assurances were reaffirmed in connection with the extension of the NPT in 1995 and cover 181 nonnuclear nations. The only exception is in the event a nonnuclear weapons state attacks a NATO member in alliance with a nuclear weapon state. There is no exception for nuclear use as a response to a chemical or biological weapons attack.


Second, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is no military or strategic requirement for NATO, with its overwhelming conventional superiority, to use nuclear weapons to defend its territory or its interests. Even during the Cold War, it was never clear how nuclear weapons could have been used to defend NATO without its own devastation. Today, there are virtually no circumstances under which NATO would require nuclear weapons to repel a challenge to its territory or to manage any crisis in Europe.

Third, the use of nuclear weapons by NATO in any operations “out of area” would be contrary to the guidelines, written and unwritten, which are likely to govern future alliance interventions. It is absurd to argue that NATO can manage a political crisis, protect human rights, avoid collateral damage or minimize civilian casualties if its interventions are to be accompanied by the use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons.

The ultimate argument of those who resist the idea of abandoning a first-use policy is that “calculated ambiguity”--uncertainty as to whether NATO would “go nuclear” in response to an attack by conventional, chemical or biological weapons--serves as a useful deterrent. The Gulf War is often cited as an example of this policy in action.

The utility and credibility of a policy of “calculated ambiguity,” however, has been greatly exaggerated. Senior U.S. policymakers, from President George Bush to Gen. Colin Powell, disclosed in their memoirs that during the Gulf War, the U.S. never had any intention of using nuclear weapons. The fact is that the political, moral and military barriers to the use of nuclear weapons are so high as to make them an unrealistic response to anything less than a nuclear attack.

NATO has been looking at its arms control and nonproliferation policies in preparation for a formal review to be announced by foreign ministers this week. Although the U.S., Britain and France are opposed, we believe it is critical for the continued viability of the international nonproliferation regime that NATO begin discussing the political devaluation of nuclear weapons and the adoption of a no-first-use policy. Strengthening the nonproliferation regime would, after all, bolster our first line of defense against nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.