In the course of their recent meeting in Geneva the US President and the President of the Russian Federation agreed upon a Joint Statement on Strategic Stability in which they reaffirmed the principle already expressed by their predecessors Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. They also announced that the United States and Russia will jointly initiate an integrated bilateral dialogue on strategic stability. Through this “deliberate and robust” dialogue, they will seek to lay the foundations for future arms control and risk reduction measures. The statement is not a historical document, but it is significant that the only written text agreed upon by the two leaders was dedicated to nuclear stability and arms control.
What the two heads of state have not yet announced are the specific issues to be included in the future debate. The most immediate risk to be addressed is undoubtedly the deliberate or accidental use of nuclear weapons. In 1995, nuclear armed countries had already jointly undertaken not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states belonging to the NPT and reiterated this commitment vis à vis the countries belonging to the five existing nuclear weapons free zones (Latin America, South Pacific, Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia). The citizens of many countries in the Asia Pacific can sleep better at night knowing they are not the target of a nuclear attack. This privilege is not shared by the citizens of countries that possess nuclear weapons or their allies, which are still haunted by the nuclear nightmare.
The extension of the “non-use” concept to the citizens of nuclear-armed states and their allies would be a significant step. In the present circumstances this goal is not achievable, but leaders of the nuclear weapons states owe it to their citizens to at least make an intermediate commitment not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.
Achieving this goal does not mean starting from scratch: this concept has for decades been the subject of discussion in international fora and some nuclear countries have already committed themselves to the NFU, notably in the Asia-Pacific region.
In 1964, China unilaterally adopted a doctrine of no-first use and in 1994 formally submitted a draft “Treaty on the Mutual Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons” to the other four nuclear-armed states and also sought to reach such an agreement in bilateral discussions.
In 1998, after testing several nuclear bombs, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared a policy of prohibiting the first use of atomic weapons. The current Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi is on record for stating that no first use (NFU) was “a great initiative” by his predecessor and that “there is no compromise on that. We are very clear. No first use is a reflection of our cultural heritage.” In 2020 in a statement at the Conference on Disarmament, the Indian ambassador reiterated that his country “remains true to its doctrine that it will not use its nuclear weapons against an opponent unless first attacked with them.”
Despite being nuclear rivals, China and India are in principle committed to not use nuclear weapons first. So far, they have respected such a commitment despite the continuing high military tension at their border, the cause of two past wars. The situation is different on the Indo-Pakistani front where Islamabad has openly declared it would use nuclear weapons first even to respond to a conventional attack.
In 1982, during the Cold War the Soviet Union, which was judged to possess conventional superiority over its rivals and encompassed territory that covered a large portion of Asia, adopted the principle of NFU. The Russian Federation abandoned this doctrine in 1993, believing it had lost conventional superiority. Concerns over conventional inferiority are still felt in Russia today, despite Moscow’s effective use of conventional force against the territorial integrity of some of its neighbors. Russia’s 1993 switch did not prevent the heads of state of China and Russia from reciprocally declaring in 1994 that they would not use nuclear weapons first or target each other with those weapons.
We cannot exclude the DPRK from this overall picture. Knowing that the reaction would be devastating, logic would have it that a minor nuclear power such as the DPRK would have an interest in not using nuclear weapons first against a superior nuclear opponent. Indeed, at the 7th Workers Party congress in 2016, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong un, is reported to have declared that the DPRK “will not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade our sovereignty.” But on previous occasions he repeatedly threatened the preventive use of nuclear weapons. Ambiguity therefore exists over North Korea’s doctrine and efforts should be made to clarify it.
No one denies that the United States is a major player in Asia or that the recent return of the NFU concept in the US nuclear debate is relevant to the Asian context. The Pentagon will be reviewing the new administration’s stance on the role of nuclear weapons in US security strategy. The issue has also acquired a parliamentary dimension as Senator Elizabeth Warren and House of Representatives Armed Services Commission Chairman Adam Smith recently presented Congress with a No First Use Act, a piece of legislation stating that “it is US policy not to use nuclear weapons first.” Other prominent Democratic representatives co-sponsored this initiative. In January 2017, President Biden himself, then vice president, spoke out in favor of adopting a concept equivalent to the NFU.
The debate taking place in the US has fueled the hope that a US move could revive international interest in the NFU concept. Civil Society is moving ahead. On 27 May 2021, a global NFU campaign was launched, involving many NGOs and parliaments. As a first step, an open letter was sent to Presidents Biden and Putin in view of their Geneva meeting inviting their respective countries to adopt the concept of NFU. This appeal was signed by more than a thousand members of civil society, think tanks, and representatives from political, scientific, diplomatic, and military organizations around the world. This initiative should interest all regions, all countries, and all citizens but the progress that has been achieved so far has mostly taken place in Asia, giving that continent the credentials to take the lead in promoting the NFU doctrine worldwide.
Carlo Trezza was Italy’s Ambassador for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation in Geneva and Ambassador to the Republic of Korea. A former Chairman of the Missile Technology Control Regime, he also chaired the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters in New York and the Conference in Disarmament in Geneva.
Image: APLN/iStock, Ilkin Quliyev.