The Case Against a New Concert of Powers
An Old Remedy Won’t Help Today’s Troubled Global Order
In his first speech to the General Assembly, the leader of Peking's delegation to the United Nations, Chiao Kuan-hua, stated on behalf of his government: "I once again solemnly declare that at no time and under no circumstances will China be the first to use nuclear weapons." And he continued: "If the United States and the Soviet Union really and truly want disarmament, they should commit themselves not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. This is not something difficult to do."
Chiao's remarks, and their prominence in the first official statement by a representative of the People's Republic of China before the United Nations, came as no surprise: the declaration that China would not be the first to use nuclear weapons has been a staple of Peking's foreign policy, constantly reiterated, ever since the first Chinese nuclear explosion in October 1964. From a Chinese point of view, such assurances made eminent good sense. In their first years, the few Chinese nuclear weapons and their manufacturing facilities offered a tempting target for a preëmptive enemy. Indeed, it was more than once rumored first that the United States and then that the Soviet Union was planning such an attack. Even today a first strike could very largely eliminate China's nuclear capabilities. In so far as a solemn declaration foreswearing first use tends to make it morally more difficult for others to use nuclear weapons against China, the P.R.C. continues to be well served by it. Moreover, it is also self-evident that, given the marked disparities between the Chinese nuclear force as it will be for the rest of the 1970s and the forces possessed by the United States and the Soviet Union, first use by China against either "nuclear superpower" (a term the Chinese use only derogatorily) would be suicidal.
Now that Peking is at last represented at the United Nations, it is likely that the theme of no first use of nuclear weapons will be heard with increased frequency and from increasing numbers of voices among the non- nuclear powers, fearful as they are that some day, in some perhaps unforeseeable circumstance, nuclear weapons might be used against them. The United States and the Soviet Union will undoubtedly be under more pressure to declare that they, also, will not use nuclear weapons first. The fact that such a declaratory position is so self-evidently in the interest of China, with a large ground army and vulnerable nuclear force, does not necessarily mean that it would not also be in the interest of the United States.
The U.S. position on first use of nuclear weapons has been virtually the mirror image of the Chinese. Ever since 1945 American leaders have tended to look upon nuclear weapons as a vital counterbalance to superior Soviet and (after 1949) Chinese ground forces. It became accepted wisdom that "free world" countries could not-or should not-regiment themselves to the same degree as their communist adversaries and place an equal number of their citizens under arms, but would rely on superior American technology to provide a nuclear deterrent to large-scale conventional aggression. This dogma was basic to the Dulles notion of "massive retaliation." Ever since the early 1960s, however, when the Soviet Union achieved strategic nuclear forces in sufficient numbers to rule out an American first strike, the planning and accompanying declaratory policy of the United States have emphasized a second-strike retaliatory role for its strategic forces, at least so far as the Soviet Union is concerned.
Very different, however, has been the declared purpose of American tactical, or "theater nuclear" weapons. Here the implied trade-off between communist "hordes" and American technology still applies, despite the fact that our potential enemies also possess tactical nuclear weapons. As Secretary of Defense Laird put it in his statement on the 1973 Defense budget: "our theater nuclear forces add to the deterrence of theater conventional wars in Europe and Asia; potential opponents cannot be sure that major conventional aggression would not be met with the use of nuclear weapons." Thus, we have been deliberately ambiguous about the circumstances in which we might initiate the use of nuclear weapons. The Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations have all insisted upon maintaining sufficiently strong conventional forces so as not to be forced into early escalation to nuclear weapons, but they have also asserted that they would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons in the face of a major conventional attack if it seemed that it could not otherwise be stopped. In the context of NATO this posture has been characterized as "flexible response."
The Soviet government has also been vague-no doubt also deliberately-about defining the circumstances in which it might initiate the use of nuclear weapons. Military writings and Warsaw Pact exercises indicate that the Red Army leadership generally assumes that a NATO attack would employ tactical nuclear weapons, and that such weapons would similarly be used by the defenders. This assumption is so strong that the question of whether or not to meet a conventional attack with tactical nuclear weapons seems scarcely to have been addressed. Another assumption is that once an exchange has taken place it would be almost impossible to limit the employment of nuclear weapons to "tactical" targets: general nuclear war would almost surely follow. Yet despite the pervasiveness of these assumptions in Soviet military writing, the Soviet Union's declaratory policy has been strongly hostile to nuclear weapons from the outset of the nuclear era, a logical concomitant of its position of nuclear inferiority for so many years. The Soviet position throughout has been that the use (and not merely the first use) of nuclear weapons should be banned and existing stockpiles destroyed as the first step toward general and complete disarmament. The American position, by contrast, has been that nuclear weapons and their delivery systems should be eliminated from national inventories only as part of a general process of disarmament, and only in proportion to reductions in conventional arms levels. Thus while the destinations of Soviet and American declaratory policies are the same, the routes to be taken are very different.
The Soviet government was a moving force behind the 1961 U.N. General Assembly resolution, sponsored by Ethiopia and seven other African and Asian states, declaring the use of nuclear weapons to be a violation of the Charter, an action "contrary to the laws of humanity," and "a crime against mankind and civilization." Taking shelter, perhaps, behind this absolutist stand, Moscow-in contrast to Peking-has not formally foresworn the first use of nuclear weapons, nor have Soviet spokesmen drawn a distinction between "use" and "first use."[i] Only the Chinese government has explicitly and consistently emphasized "no first use," although its declarations have also called for the "complete prohibition and thorough destruction" of nuclear weapons. British and French policy has closely paralleled that of the United States. Both London and Paris seem to regard the possible use of nuclear weapons as a powerful deterrent against conventional attacks. The 1964-70 British Labour government placed special emphasis on the development within NATO of more precise and comprehensive guidelines regarding the use of tactical nuclear weapons. In doing so it was motivated at least in part by its own unwillingness to maintain significant levels of conventional forces on the Continent. Perhaps because French military policy has developed formally, at least, outside the context of NATO, French rhetoric has emphasized to a degree much greater than either American or British statements the desirability of banning nuclear weapons and destroying stockpiles, but French statements have almost always included the qualification that nuclear disarmament must be accompanied by conventional disarmament and that all disarmament measures must be guaranteed through rigorous inspection and international supervision.
"No use" carries with it the implication that the mere possession of nuclear weapons is wrong, and that existing stockpiles should be destroyed. "No first use," however, has very different practical implications and probable psychological consequences. It contains no built-in presumption toward the phasing out of nuclear stockpiles. In the absence of dependable international guarantees, a nuclear power undertaking not to initiate the use of nuclear weapons would retain its ability to retaliate fully in response to the use of nuclear weapons by others. It would, in short, give up nothing of its ability to deter nuclear attacks. Many factors have contributed to the nuclear truce which the world has observed since the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in August 1945, but not least-and perhaps most- among them has been the knowledge that the United States and the Soviet Union (and lately, perhaps, other nuclear powers as well) are able to absorb a devastating nuclear attack and yet respond in a manner that will devastate the attacker. Under a "no-first-use" obligation, no matter what form it might take, this ability, and therefore the efficacy of a deterrent, would be undiminished.[ii]
On the other hand, to the extent that a "no-first-use" undertaking appeared credible-and that extent undoubtedly would vary-a nuclear power's ability to deter conventional attacks by the threat of a nuclear response would be reduced. This is the contingency referred to by Secretary Laird in the statement quoted, and it has long been an important part of American (and NATO) military doctrine. Yet it is also true that no area of military doctrine is more vague than guidelines for the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Most writers on the subject take it for granted that in Europe, at least, the use of tactical nuclear weapons by one of the opposing alliance systems would lead to a nuclear response by the other. Where analysts disagree is on the probability that the conflict would remain limited. The preponderance of informed opinion, however, is that it would not, and that once a belligerent takes the momentous step of using tactical nuclear weapons, it would be more likely to escalate than to accept an unfavorable battlefield outcome, particularly under the conditions of stress that would invariably accompany the outbreak of nuclear hostilities. Thus there would be no certain advantage for NATO in meeting a conventional attack with a nuclear response, and the risks of mass destruction would be enormous. The notion of "no first use" aims at making absolute the boundary between conventional and nuclear weapons, even at some cost.
The cost, of course, is recognition that a party declaring that it will not initiate the use of nuclear weapons renders itself at least marginally more open to conventional attack. It therefore must tend to its non-nuclear defenses. In some circumstances this cost may seem overwhelmingly high: where there exist major tensions that might lead to conflict, and where there are significant disparities in non-nuclear military capabilities, the threat of a nuclear response by the weaker side may, indeed, be its sole assurance against coercive pressure from the stronger. In such a case, the potential costs of nuclear escalation, once war had started, would seem far less worrisome than the costs involved either in sustaining a conventional invasion or in creating conventional forces sufficiently powerful to deter one. Indeed, in some situations, the creation (or the perpetuation) of conventional parity may be simply impossible. If the Arab-Israeli confrontation were to continue indefinitely, and if the Arab nations were eventually to achieve the ability to field formidable military forces, the Israelis might well conclude that only nuclear weapons-with all the risks entailed-would give them the ability to deter a potentially overwhelming attack.
The case of the United States, however, is very different. In no cases where it has commitments which might ultimately lead it to engage its military forces does there presently exist this hypothetical combination of severe political tension and a pronounced disparity in non-nuclear capability. The area which has traditionally been the source of greatest concern, Europe, is now the scene of considerably lessened East-West tensions. Despite the traditional worst-case predictions which accompany requests from the NATO bureaucracy at Brussels for more military resources, Western non-nuclear forces are capable of offering formidable resistance to their Warsaw Pact opponents; even if they are in some respects inferior, their inferiority is not now such as to invite an attack.
The trade-off, of course, for raising the nuclear threshold is the maintaining of non-nuclear capability adequate to deter a non-nuclear attack. Any enunciation of a "no-first-use" policy by the United States would necessarily have to come as an integral part of our military policy relating to Europe. Here some obvious questions immediately arise: Why do it? Tensions are low. War in Europe is not likely. Why change arrangements that seem to have worked so well? The questions are good ones. Yet if anything is certain about American conventional force levels in Europe over the next decade it is that they will drop; what is uncertain is by how much. And any significant drop will itself change the arrangements which have seemed to work so well. Such a change need not be for the worse. Provided the process by which American troop levels are reduced is gradual, provided the cuts themselves are not drastic (down, say, to no less than 100,000 men), and provided they are signaled to our European allies well in advance, they could serve as the spur to a healthy process whereby the West Europeans assume more responsibility for their own defense.
Paradoxically, a U.S. "no-first-use" policy would be likely to assist rather than hinder that process. Raising and maintaining armies has never been popular with the European members of NATO. They are subject to the same sorts of domestic pressures for the reallocation of scarce resources away from military and toward internal purposes as we are. Like us, they have made piecemeal reductions in the size of their forces. In the absence of a U.S. "no-first-use" policy they would be likely to reduce further their own force levels as we reduced ours, and not take over the military leadership of the Alliance. They would choose instead to rely on the deterrent power of the thousands of American tactical nuclear weapons (with their implicit escalatory link to U.S. strategic weapons) which would surely still remain in Europe even if our manpower level fell sharply. Thus the nuclear threshold would be lowered and the risks of potential nuclear war-although still remote-would be correspondingly increased.
Yet while the Europeans have at least in some measure justified their less than enthusiastic response to past American calls for larger forces and increased readiness on their part by pointing to U.S. nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against a Warsaw Pact attack, many of them have been unable to suppress their doubts as to whether, in fact, any administration in Washington would be willing to trade American for European cities. And just as they have questioned the credibility of the U.S. strategic deterrent, so they have also expressed considerable uneasiness about the probable consequence of the use of tactical nuclear weapons to stop an advance by Warsaw Pact forces. The West Germans in particular have shown a not surprising skepticism toward claims, from their own military establishments and ours, that tactical nuclear weapons might be employed on European territory without themselves causing widespread and horrifying devastation and triggering even more destructive escalation.
A U.S. "no-first-use" policy in conjunction with a gradual and deliberate drawing down of U.S, force levels in Europe would necessarily break the linkage between lowering U.S. force levels and a lowering nuclear threshold. It would also be the clearest way of telling the West Europeans that a set of states which have come to comprise the largest economic entity in the world must henceforth take primary responsibility for its own defense-for assessing the threats that it faces and for allocating appropriate resources for defense. It would not be surprising if the resulting assessment did not result in increased European conventional forces; indeed, the Europeans might even further reduce their active forces. But in so doing they would make explicit the assumption which underlies this whole argument: that it is not the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons but the absence of overriding political tensions which is responsible for the very low likelihood of war in Europe. In such circumstances, it should be added, U.S. tactical nuclear weapons would not be removed, although undoubtedly their number should in any case be reduced from their reported present swollen 7,000. Rather, they would remain as a deterrent against nuclear first use by the Warsaw Pact. Whether they remained wholly under U.S. control, or whether some or all were placed under multilateral arrangements,[iii] the U.S. nuclear umbrella-in so far as it shields our allies from nuclear attack-would be unimpaired.[iv]
At present, NATO policy regarding the use of nuclear weapons is ambiguous. It seems clear in retrospect (as, indeed, it did to many observers at the time) that Secretary of Defense McNamara was determined to raise the nuclear threshold so high as to amount virtually to a "no-first-use" position; this was a principal implication of the "flexible response" strategy which the United States imposed on NATO in the early 1960s. Yet because "no first use" has never been adopted as U.S. policy, both U.S. and NATO military planning has always proceeded in a climate of uncertainty regarding the critical issues of whether, and how, nuclear weapons might in fact be used, and how further escalation might be prevented. There is no question but that formal adoption of "no first use" would make possible a more realistic process of military planning. Under present conditions planners and field commanders must fear that the option of initiating the use of nuclear weapons would be denied NATO forces in a crisis, yet they cannot fully plan for that contingency. By limiting options in advance, "no first use" might well enable commanders to respond more decisively, and thus, paradoxically, increase the effectiveness of NATO forces.
As regards Asia, even more than Europe, U.S. military doctrine has been to regard nuclear weapons as a cheap and effective barricade against communist "hordes." Asia, and not Europe, has been the scene of the only U.S. threats to use nuclear weapons-to induce the Chinese Communists to accept a ceasefire in Korea in 1953 and to forestall their invasion of the Nationalist-held offshore islands in 1958. Yet while the doctrine remains the same, reality is changing. The domestic outcry which greeted rumors- almost certainly unfounded-that the Johnson administration was planning to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, to lift the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968, led to official statements that the use of such weapons in the Southeast Asian war was out of the question. At the same time, there is a heightened general awareness of the racist undertones of a military doctrine which had implied a greater readiness to use nuclear weapons against Asians than against Europeans. These sensitivities, combined with our new relationship with China and a widespread realization that we had wildly overestimated the likelihood of Chinese military expansionism, make it increasingly improbable that we would ever initiate the use of nuclear weapons in any foreseeable Asian contingency.
The United States would not need to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in order to meet its commitments to Japan, Taiwan or the Philippines. If these island territories were ever subject to non-nuclear attack, a non-nuclear response would be sufficient to prevent an invasion or to lift a blockade. Nuclear attack, of course, would be deterred by the threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation, just as it would anywhere else where we have commitments (and, more than likely, even where we do not). Only in the case of Korea is there any real likelihood of the kind of "classic" border-crossing attack with main-force units which might be deterred by the threat of a tactical- nuclear response. Here the situation resembles that in Europe: we maintain U.S. forces in Korea for the express purpose of helping an ally deter an invasion. As in Europe, the administration is under considerable budgetary pressure to draw down force levels. Yet the large and well-trained Korean army is a formidable force in its own right, undoubtedly capable of acquitting itself well in the event of a North Korean invasion. Indeed, U.S. forces have often appeared to be needed less to deter a North Korean attack than to cool hotter heads in the South who want to turn their own soldiers northward. As in the case of Europe, the price of a U.S. "no-first- use" policy might need to be a decision to keep U.S. forces-particularly air forces-in South Korea at greater than token (although lower than present) levels for the foreseeable future.
Alone of Asian governments, that of the Republic of Korea would be likely to lodge strenuous objections to a U.S. "no-first-use" position. In part, however, its objections would be for bargaining purposes, in order to assure the continued presence of U.S. non-nuclear forces, and in part they would also be for domestic political reasons-the Park régime in Seoul has long found it useful to magnify the threat from the North as a rationale for the suppression of opposition at home. Less heated objections, as much for the record and from simple opposition to any change, would be likely to come from Taipei and Bangkok, while the Japanese and perhaps also the Filippinos would be at least as likely to welcome any such move, so long as it was apparent that the U.S. deterrent against nuclear attack remained as effective as before. Provided the Japanese had concrete reassurance on this point, a U.S. "no-first-use" policy would not give them any additional reason to develop nuclear weapons of their own. Indeed, in so far as such a position was made to appear as part of a move to deëmphasize nuclear weapons, pressures to "go nuclear" in nations like Japan, which face no insuperable non-nuclear threats, might decrease.
Perhaps the most far-reaching political effects of a U.S. "no-first-use" position would be on our relationship with Peking. Virtually ever since it came to power on the mainland, the communist régime has viewed American (and, later, Soviet) nuclear weapons as a threat aimed particularly at themselves. It is not surprising, therefore, that they have insisted that a prerequisite for China's participation in any measures of arms control relating to nuclear weapons would be prior U.S. and Soviet adoption of the "no-first-use" position to which China has adhered since even before its first nuclear test. This is not to imply that once the United States (and the Soviet Union) had adopted "no first use" the Chinese might be willing to accept restrictions on their own nuclear force which would not also apply to other nuclear powers. Even if China does not plan to deploy nuclear weapons in nearly the quantities fielded by the two superpowers, simple reasons of "face" would prevent Peking's acceptance of lesser quotas. But once the other two had pledged not to be the first to use nuclear weapons-and therefore, once they had removed from the conduct of their diplomacy nuclear threats, to which the Chinese have been particularly sensitive-Peking might well agree to join the various forums, bilateral and multilateral, in which arms control is discussed. This would be a symbolic step of no small importance, psychologically emphasizing the role of China as a state in the world of states. It also might well have beneficial consequences, as part of the process of wiping the slate clean, for future U.S.-Chinese relations.
A U.S. commitment to "no first use" might come through agreement with one or more other governments, or it might be unilateral. In addition, it might be general or specific (i.e. confined to a specified geographic region) in its application. A logical first such bilateral agreement would be between the United States and China. Each would pledge not to initiate the use of nuclear weapons against the territory or the armed forces of the other. Such a bilateral agreement would perhaps be easier to negotiate than one that is multilateral. In addition, it might be easier to get agreement to it within the U.S. government than a consensus on a wider commitment. An agreement including the Soviet Union might be postponed until agreement had been reached on other matters affecting European security, such as mutual and balanced force reductions. On the other hand, a bilateral U.S.-China agreement would necessarily leave the parties free to initiate the use of nuclear weapons against third countries, which would clearly be undesirable. (It can be argued, however, that China has already assumed unilaterally a general "no-first-use" commitment which would not be reduced except by explicit reservations.)
If the United States were to adopt a "no-first-use" policy, there are undeniable advantages in doing so within the context of an international- preferably multilateral, rather than bilateral-agreement An international agreement would be seen both in the United States and abroad as another measure of arms control, a follow-on to the test-ban, the nonproliferation treaty, SALT and the treaties banning nuclear weapons from Latin America, Antarctica, the seabeds and outer space. It would be useful as a means of preserving the momentum that is an important psychological concomitant of arms control, and therefore as a stepping-stone to eventual arms reductions.
Yet, desirable though "no first use" by international agreement might seem, there are also strong arguments for adopting such a policy by means of a unilateral declaration, as the Chinese have done. Within the United States, a unilateral declaration would meet less resistance from the foreign affairs and military bureaucracies and the Congress, because its wording would not need to be negotiated with other governments and therefore could incorporate any shadings or reservations-such as a statement of conditions which would make the declaration void-which might be regarded as necessary on political grounds.
Moreover, of all the various measures for arms control already in effect or foreseeable, "no first use" is the least dependent for its efficacy on international agreement. The purpose of a "no-first-use" commitment is to decrease the likelihood that parties to a conflict will resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Even if only one party (call it nation A) has made such a commitment, the behavior of its opponent (nation B) will also be affected. A's "no-first-use" declaration will give B at least some assurance that A will not strike with nuclear weapons. B will therefore have less of an incentive to use nuclear weapons to strike preëmptively at A's nuclear forces in order to minimize the damage that they might inflict. Indeed, B will have a positive incentive not to use nuclear weapons, for their use would free A from its "no-first-use" commitment, and invite nuclear retaliation. Thus a "no-first-use" commitment undertaken unilaterally by only one party to a conflict will still serve to widen the fire-break between conventional and nuclear weapons for the conflict as a whole. And unilateral "no-first-use" declarations will encourage other governments to do the same: the more that do so, the wider the firebreak becomes.
Whether "no first use" is undertaken unilaterally or by international agreement, the consequences for individual nations are exactly the same, for "no first use" does not depend for enforcement upon international mechanisms. Instead, it is self-enforcing: once a nation violates its pledge of "no first use," others are thereby released from their pledges, subjecting the violator to the prospect of nuclear retaliation-a prospect which would be a powerful deterrent against violation. This simplicity is one of the attractive aspects of "no first use" as an arms-control measure. It is also one of its weaknesses. A nation may go back on its declared word. A government-indeed, a single national leader-may decide that a nation stands to gain more from escalating to nuclear weapons, despite the retaliation that would then be invoked, than it does from allowing a conflict to proceed using only conventional weapons. Moreover, an abrogation would not need to be formally a violation; before actually escalating, a government could solemnly announce that its previous declaration of "no first use" is rescinded. Indeed, the prospect of abrogation-which would never be entirely absent so long as states retained nuclear stockpiles-would in itself serve as a form of deterrent against conventional attacks. Who can say what a government might do under crisis conditions should it feel that its existence, or vital national interests, were threatened?
Such fragility is undoubtedly a drawback, but "no first use" is in fact no more fragile than any other arms-control régime. Indeed, because it is so directly self-enforcing, with such potentially dire consequences from abrogation, it is as relatively durable as any arms-control régime can be in a world of sovereign states lacking any overarching mechanism of enforcement. In order to prevent violation, states which subscribe to the principle of "no first use" will nevertheless keep their own nuclear forces at whatever levels they calculate are necessary to deter nuclear attacks upon them by others. They might, however, find it possible to phase out some of their tactical nuclear weapons more suited to initial than to retaliatory use, and to withdraw others from forward positions to the greater custodial security of rear depots. And if the principle ever seemed to be well accepted by all of the main nuclear powers, national-security bureaucracies might be moved to make more far-reaching reductions in their nuclear forces, based upon more realistic notions of types and levels of weapons genuinely necessary for deterring nuclear attacks.
An alternative to a flat "no-first-use" declaration, at least for the United States, might come through congressional legislation stipulating that the President, as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, may not initiate the use of nuclear weapons without receiving prior congressional authorization. Congress now has before it so-called War Powers legislation stipulating that in the absence of a formal declaration of war the President may not engage the armed forces in military operations for more than 30 days without specific congressional authorization. This draft legislation is premised upon the assumption that the "collective judgment" of Congress and the President should apply to the "initiation" and the "continuation" of hostilities. Senator Fulbright, Congressman Dellums, and others (including the Federation of American Scientists, one of the most active lobbying groups in the arms-control area) have pointed out that just as Congress should be concerned to limit the power of the President to sustain hostilities without its approval, so it should also limit his power to escalate them across the threshold from conventional to nuclear weapons. They are seeking to amend the War Powers legislation to that effect.[v]
In many respects the effects of this proposed legislation would be similar to those of an orthodox commitment to "no first use." Nuclear threats would be inappropriate. Force deployments might reflect the assumption that the United States would not initiate the use of nuclear weapons. Just as in the case of a "no-first-use" commitment, U.S. ability to respond to a nuclear attack, and therefore the efficacy of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, would be undiminished. The granting of congressional authorization, should it take place, would be equivalent to a formal announcement rescinding a prior "no- first-use" commitment, unilateral or multilateral. Such authorization (or the rescinding of a prior "no-first-use" commitment) would, in fact, constitute in itself an important diplomatic instrument. It would convey to an adversary the seriousness with which Washington viewed a threat, and its willingness to risk nuclear war in response. In this respect congressional authorization (or the public rescinding of "no first use") would be akin to the "demonstration use" which figures in some war-fighting scenarios, when one party to a conflict explodes a nuclear weapon in a manner which inflicts no damage but nevertheless conveys resolve.
Depending upon the form it took, the requirement of congressional authorization might also differ in important respects from a "no-first-use" commitment. For example, the President might announce in advance, and the Congress informally indicate its agreement, that in certain contingencies-a build-up, for example, of Warsaw Pact forces near a Western frontier-he would seek advance authorization. Such an announcement might serve to reassure allies, such as the West Germans or the South Koreans, who otherwise might feel that their positions were excessively vulnerable.[vi] In such a form the basic principle of "no first use"-although substantially diluted-might also be more readily accepted by the American foreign affairs bureaucracy, by the military services and by the Congress itself. Yet, by the same token, it would be regarded as insufficient by others; the Chinese, for example, would be unlikely to regard it as sufficiently forthcoming to serve as an opening for their participation in arms-control discussions.
Regardless of whether Congress passes War Powers legislation which includes a prohibition on the first use of nuclear weapons without its authorization, and regardless of whether the present or a future administration should decide to commit itself to "no first use," the issue of when the United States might be prepared to initiate the use of nuclear weapons deserves more serious public discussion than it has thus far had. Present U.S. military doctrine (if not practice) continues to regard nuclear weapons as trade-offs for adequate conventional forces-indeed, as simply higher levels on a continuum of violence. The public should have more information concerning the circumstances in which those trade-offs might be made, what might be achieved by escalating to nuclear weapons, and what risks of still greater nuclear escalation would thereby be engendered. An unequivocal "no-first-use" position undoubtedly also entails certain risks. But careful and thoughtful examination might judge them lesser risks, and risks more easily hedged against, than those inherent in blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons, and thus jeopardizing the long-lasting nuclear truce.
[i] Note the comment by Premier N. S. Khrushchev to C. L. Sulzberger of The New York Times on September 5, 1961: "Let us assume both sides were to promise not to employ nuclear weapons, but retained their stockpiles. What would happen if the imperialists unleashed war? In such a war if any side should feel it was losing, would it not use nuclear weapons to avoid defeat? It would undoubtedly use its nuclear bombs."
[ii] "No first use" would not-strictly speaking-apply to strategic defensive systems such as ABMs. For practical purposes the irrevocable launch by an opponent of a missile suspected of containing a nuclear warhead would constitute "first use," thus justifying interception by a nuclear-armed ABM before the actual detonation of the incoming warhead.
[iii] As proposed by Walter F. Hahn in his article, "Nuclear Balance in Europe," in the April 1972 issue of Foreign Affairs.
[iv] If the United States were to adopt "no first use" and if the British and French did not, it would be at least theoretically possible for either or both of the two smaller nuclear forces to initiate a chain of events which would involve our own. At least for the rest of this decade, however, when both London and Paris will be devoting such resources as they allocate to nuclear weapons predominantly to strategic forces, their tactical capabilities will remain sufficiently modest so that preëmptive use would be most unlikely.
[v] It has also been suggested that any such amendment should stipulate that when the President comes before Congress with a request for authority to use nuclear weapons, Congress must act on his request, positively or negatively, within a specified short period of time, say two or three days.
[vi] It might be argued that such an announcement might lead an opponent to respond with a preëmptive nuclear strike on U.S. tactical or strategic nuclear forces. Yet such a risk would not be significantly greater than it would have been had "no first use" never been adopted in the first place, which merely points up the fact that the principal reason for adopting "no first use" is to reduce incentives toward nuclear preëmption.