Nuclear No-First Use: Revisiting Hawks, Doves and Owls

Is it possible to consider no-first use as a means of bridging trust deficits between nuclear states?

The present international system is as dangerous as it was in 1953 – at the start of the nuclear arms race. At least that’s what the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists believes, as the Doomsday Clock remains at two minutes to midnight in the “new abnormal” of 2019. Central to this sense of heightened risk is the danger posed by nuclear weapons use, evident through weakening arms control efforts, duplicitous international commitments to non-proliferation, and emerging military doctrines that have the potential to erode the nuclear taboo.

Integral to India’s nuclear doctrine is the idea of minimum credible deterrence, as well as a policy of nuclear no-first use (NFU). NFU has been the subject of intense domestic debate between doves, hawks and owls.

Hawks see nuclear deterrence as a numbers game and advocate for the strengthening of arsenals to bolster deterrence. Doves prefer to avoid the use of force, seeking recourse to diplomacy or other kinds of incentives. Owls, however, present a “middle path.” They prefer a realistic approach to force, but remain cautious about situations that heighten risks and increase the chance for accidents. NFU is very much an owl’s view – pragmatic, yet cautious.

If this is the case, then why has NFU remained on the fringes of international security debates in this period of heightened risk?

NFU remains on the margins

The main reason is because NFU is quite difficult to operationalise. NFU succeeds in contexts where the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is only to deter a nuclear attack by a nuclear armed adversary. Historically however, it is the threat of nuclear force, even in a pre-emptive attack, that has remained the preferred grounds for maintaining deterrence. Proponents of this logic argue that fear of superior Soviet conventional forces led to US deployment of nuclear weapons through NATO in 1979.

This deterred a Soviet invasion and maintained peace in Western Europe (the Soviet Union’s NFU pledge in 1982 is to be understood as mere rhetoric!) Interestingly, when the Soviet Union collapsed and NATO countries were momentarily at a conventional military advantage, Russia dropped her NFU pledge in 1993. In this historical pattern, threat of first-use is the preferred deterrence posture for a weaker state, while NFU requires a secure state with a strong conventional capability.

However, can NFU be considered more than just the end of the deterrence calculus? Is it possible to consider it a means of bridging trust deficits between nuclear states?

Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula

The Korean peninsula presents a compelling case for this question, since it was one of the high-risk areas for nuclear miscalculation last year. With 2019 promising another big-ticket meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, the actual mechanisms by which denuclearisation will be achieved remain uncertain.

For the United States, CVID (comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible, dismantling) has been the maximalist mantra. For North Korea, denuclearisation means withdrawal of threatening US forces from neighbouring South Korea’s borders, and possibly withdrawal of the US nuclear umbrella over the region. These positions are untenable in practice, and acrimonious rhetoric from both parties notwithstanding, both sides have been urged to arrive at a compromise this year, by no less than Xi Jinping.

Hawks will argue that Kim will be keen to avoid the fate of Muammar Gadaffi and Saddam Hussein. From the North Korean point of view, a nuclear arsenal remains the best insurance policy against invasion. Complete nuclear disarmament, though unlikely in the near term, is not entirely out of the picture. Doves might point to South Africa in 1989-91 or the Treaty of Tlatelolco signed in 1967 to imagine a non-zero sum endgame to the stalemate on the peninsula.

If the spectacle of the Singapore summit last year is anything to go by, the next meeting between the two leaders may well build on the high-visibility/vague-outcome template. Declaring the end of the Korean war and a North-South reconciliation with great fanfare, seems to be the low hanging fruit (the Korean War was fought between 1950-1953 and ended with an armistice but no official peace treaty.) This will ensure a great show, but will also mean that in the long-term North Korea will have no reasons at all to give up her nuclear arsenal – an outcome that will have far-reaching consequences in East Asia. The region may experience a “domino effect,” where Japan and South Korea are also compelled to go nuclear.

An owl’s approach

An owl’s approach is to introduce an NFU pledge as part of the denuclearisation agenda. An NFU pledge would signal North Korean sincerity, and provide a “holding position” from which to explore further improvement in ties with South Korea and Japan, or bargaining with the US. The pledge can function as the minimum concession Kim Jong-un can make towards ending nuclear sabre-rattling and threats, retaining a nuclear arsenal, while also advancing aims of “normalisation.” If the North Korean arsenal is indeed defensive, an NFU pledge is not outside the realm of possibility.

North Korea as a conventionally weaker state might look to history to find no instance to substantiate the adoption of an NFU in this context. But then again, if history is going to be made, it ought to be in a manner that does not repeat the mistakes of the past. Cold War thinking in the current international system, will recreate the same instability.

An interim position like NFU that signals defensive intentions is preferable to an indefinite position that relies on nuclear threats. In both cases, uncertainty remains, but the interim position is far more likely to lead to a practical negotiation and a discrete outcome that builds trust, while the indefinite position merely increases uncertainty at all levels. While the second may produce an uneasy and unreliable deterrence, it only the first that addresses the larger questions of regional order.

If the world is as dangerous as it was back in 1953, perhaps an end to the Korean war can be the start of something new.

Ram Ganesh Kamatham is an Associate Research Fellow at Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru. His research occurs at the intersection of culture and strategy. He holds double masters degrees in the Anthropology of Media from SOAS, and International Relations from RSIS, NTU. He can be followed on twitter @RGKwriting