No-first-use, or the idea that the United States should not use nuclear weapons unless first attacked with them, has gained traction everywhere from the House Armed Services Committee to the Democratic presidential debates. Proponents of a no-first-use policy present it as a common-sense solution that would reduce the likelihood of nuclear war and signal U.S. leadership on nuclear proliferation. The reality, however, is that a no-first-use policy would upend decades of bipartisan consensus at precisely the moment when continuity in nuclear policy is needed most. America’s adoption of a no-first-use policy would be bad for the United States, worse for our allies, and terrible for the cause of nuclear nonproliferation in an era of strategic competition with China.
First, a no-first-use policy would weaken our military posture in the face of a wide array of chemical, biological, and cyberattacks. Under the rules of engagement outlined by the no-first-use policy, the United States could suffer a biological attack killing thousands of troops stationed abroad, a chemical attack killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in San Francisco, and a crippling cyberattack on America’s nuclear infrastructure and still be unable to respond with nuclear force. A no-first-use policy would place a needless restriction on the country even when nuclear force would be the best option to deter further aggression.