The Utility of the First-Use Doctrine

One day after the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2016 in the House. The bill would “prohibit the President from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.” The press release announcing the bill cited concerns about Trump’s ability to be trusted with the dangerous weapons if he were elected president. Markey asserted that, “maintaining the option of using nuclear weapons first in a conflict…increases the risk of unintended nuclear escalation. The President should not use nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack.” Controversy about first use surfaced over the summer, in response to an op-ed urging Obama to renounce the doctrine written by James E. Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Despite the flurry of speculation that followed, it seems that Obama is unlikely to renounce first use during his remaining time in office.

The bill that Lieu and Markey introduced would effectively eliminate the strategic and other advantages that the United States derives from its current policy of ambiguity surrounding the first use of nuclear weapons. Most importantly, it would make the United States’ allies (South Korea and Estonia, for example) demand much larger commitments of U.S. conventional forces for their defense. Donald Trump has drawn a lot of fire for his views on various subjects, including his comments about nuclear weapons and his insistence that the United States’ allies take more responsibility for their own defense. The United States cannot have it both ways: it cannot maintain an elaborate and extensive array of commitments to defend allies around the world while at the same time minimizing its spending on defense and the current size of its military, unless it retains the possibility of nuclear first use. I recently published a piece with the National Interest about why retaining the first-use doctrine would be useful for the United States—even if we hope that the United States would never actually introduce nuclear weapons to a crisis. You can read the piece here.