The thought of using nuclear weapons often brings extreme trepidation to policy makers and citizens alike, but they are a key part of American national security and global stability. In fact, nuclear weapons have most likely prevented a great power conflict since World War II. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said as much in her speech before the Kremlin in 1987. She noted, “[A] world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and more dangerous for all of us.” Lady Thatcher continued by quoting Sir Winston Churchill, “Be careful above all things not to let go of the atomic weapon until you are sure and more than sure that other means of preserving peace are in your hands.”
President Obama has been a strong advocate of reducing nuclear weapons in the world, even though some think his policies have not always been the best in order to do so. He reached the New START Treaty with Russia meant to limit ICBMs and SLBMs and the Iran nuclear deal to keep the regime’s nuclear program “peaceful.” However, his latest attempt to limit nuclear weapons categorically goes against American interests. President Obama has come out saying that he may create a “no first use” policy, cancel the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon (a tactical nuclear weapon), and cut back nuclear modernization. Although the latter two ideas are also wrong, implementing a “no first use” policy would severely limit deterrence of conventional wars with great powers.
Nina Tannenwald, a constructivist in International Relations theory, argues that America will not use nuclear weapons because history produced an anti-nuclear culture, what she calls the “nuclear taboo.” Under this view the United States has foregone the use of nuclear weapons because we believe them to be so horrific and destructive that we abhor the very notion of using them, even when we can do so without ramification. Her examples include the Vietnam War, where B-2 bombings during the war producing more damage than several nuclear bombs, and Gulf War I, where we were operating in a desert against a power that didn’t have nuclear weapons. However, we still refused to do so, even with strategic advantages, because the idea of using them was too appalling.
It is in accepting this view that one would be comfortable forgoing a first use option with only “mutually assured destruction” providing deterrence. As Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund Tom Collina says, “Nukes are truly weapons of last resort, useful only to deter their use by others.”
Paul Nitze, the greatest strategist of and thinker on nuclear weapons during the Cold War, took a different approach to nuclear weapons, at least during the conflict with the Soviet Union. Nitze participated in the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in both Germany and the Pacific, attempting to understand how best to use bombs in the future. He saw nuclear weapons as just another type of bomb, a minority view, and understood that the Soviet Union would seek a strategic advantage by gaining the bomb. They would then attempt to use nuclear blackmail to achieve unipolarity and communist domination through conventional arms because the U.S. might be too afraid to engage as a nuclear war would be possible. One of the key deterrents of conventional war between the two, though, was that nuclear war was possible through escalation, and each country didn’t know who would be the first to use them. (For a better understanding of Nitze’s thought, see NSC-68 and his autobiography.) The possible use of nuclear weapons, therefore, produced stability between the great powers.
There may never be a time that comes for the first use of nuclear weapons, but we must always be prepared for what Michael Walzer called the “supreme emergency” in his seminal book Just and Unjust Wars. A supreme emergency is an utterly dire situation that may call for wholly immoral actions. Preeminent realist Henry Kissinger even saw a way to use nuclear weapons in conventional war back in 1957, a strategic thought that should and can be revived. Nuclear non-proliferation and limitation is an admirable and laudable goal, but President Obama should not forgo first use and keep it as a strategic possibility. We must always principally think of our national interest and stability, and that means never fully limiting strategic capabilities like first use.