As global arms control measures fail and new international tensions arise, the Takshashila Institution believes nuclear states across the world should join hands and pledge no-first-use of nuclear weapons. A global no-first-use or GNFU agreement would be a fresh but pragmatic measure to lower alert levels, slow down arms races, and restore some degree of safety and security to fraught international relationships.
Political and technological changes have sparked a resurgence of nuclear dangers. The international order set up after 1945 is increasingly fragile, China is asserting itself, and great power competition has taken center stage in world affairs. As a result, arms control negotiations are in limbo, nuclear states are using the ultimate weapons to deter a variety of threats and other states are seeking to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.
New technologies have also created new perils: precision guided munitions, artificial intelligence-based targeting, hypersonic boost glide missiles, offensive space-based capabilities, and cyber sabotage are all putting upward pressure on the sophistication and size of nuclear arsenals.
Any threat to use nuclear weapons first against another nuclear state suffers from an inherent credibility problem since an escalating nuclear war would leave both parties catastrophically worse off.
Some states believe the threat of nuclear first-use can deter adversaries with greater conventional forces. However, building an arsenal that is theoretically capable of delivering such a threat is expensive. Furthermore, a considerable proportion of a state’s conventional forces will have to be assigned to protect this arsenal, eroding conventional deterrence. In short, the threat of first-use offers few tangible benefits but exacts very real costs.
A no-first-use pledge allows a state to achieve nuclear deterrence more efficiently. As long as such a state can credibly threaten retaliation against nuclear use, it can deter threats while keeping alert levels low and avoiding the bloated arsenals associated with first-use.
If all nuclear states were to adopt no-first-use under a GNFU agreement, it would reduce nuclear tensions and allow states to limit the size of their arsenals despite political and technological pressures.
A GNFU agreement is our best hope for managing nuclear weapons in the 21st century.