The United States of America can perhaps learn from India that when it comes to great power generated from the possession of a nuclear arsenal, great responsibility is co-terminus.
After the successful completion of its nuclear tests in 1998, India adopted a “no first-use” (NFU) policy which has remained constant over the past two decades despite occasional hiccups in the form of statements from senior government functionaries which has led to sporadic speculation that the policy could be reviewed. India’s nuclear doctrine first published in 2003, while iterating its policy of not being a nuclear aggressor, underlined that India’s retaliation to a first strike against it would be massive and designed to inflict maximum damage.
Ironically, for the USA, the only other country in the world apart from India which has a NFU policy in place is the People’s Republic of China which declared itself a nuclear power in 1964. In Washington, however, indications are that adopting an American NFU policy remains a bridge too far as its current Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) examines the circumstances in which the USA would consider the use of nuclear weapons.
President Joe Biden is thought to be partial to moving towards adopting a declaratory policy of no first-use in which US nuclear weapons would only be used in response to a nuclear attack against America or its allies and partners, but experts believe the headwinds are far too strong for this to come to fruition in the present geopolitical environment.
Pressure is growing, however, on the Biden Administration to consider alternative means of demonstrating its commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons, particularly in deterring or responding to non-nuclear attacks. Nonproliferation advocate Robert Einhorn, writing on the current NPR, argues that President Biden should at least try making progress towards that goal. This position, shared by many in the US policy establishment, holds that the current NPR should make clear that the circumstances in which the USA might consider the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks are extremely limited in the first place, and significantly more limited
than suggested by the 2018 NPR.
President Biden should also declare that adoption of NFU/sole-purpose use of nuclear weapons is a US goal and that his administration would work to put in place the conditions that would allow this objective to be achieved without undermining US and allied security interests. Einhorn, among others, suggests that to show the US Administration is serious about following through on such a declaration, the NPR should direct an internal study that would identify those conditions and the policies and programmes that would accelerate their realisation.
Washington is also being urged to establish consultative mechanisms with allies charged with developing a common understanding of the conditions for declaring NFU/sole purpose use as well as with promoting and monitoring progress towards fulfilling those conditions. It is about time the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons learns from those who adopted nuclear deterrence as an instrument of state policy decades later, but far more responsibly.