The Case for a U.S. No-First-Use Policy

A scene from Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.” Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures

By Daryl G. Kimball

Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove” delivers an eerily accurate depiction of the absurd logic and catastrophic risks of U.S. and Russian Cold War nuclear deterrence strategy, but for one key detail: President Merkin Muffley was wrong when he said, “It is the avowed policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons.” But it should be.

Fortunately, the nuclear “doomsday machine” has not yet been unleashed. Arms control agreements have led to significant, verifiable reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, the two countries have ceased nuclear testing, and they have tightened checks on nuclear command and control.

But the potential for a catastrophic nuclear war remains. The core elements of Cold War-era U.S. nuclear strategy are largely the same, including the option to use nuclear weapons first and the maintenance of prompt-launch policies that still give the president unchecked authority to order the use of nuclear weapons.

Today, the United States and Russia deploy massive strategic nuclear arsenals consisting of up to 1,550 warheads on each side, as allowed under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. These numbers greatly exceed what it would take to decimate the other side and are far larger than required to deter a nuclear attack.

Worse still, each side maintains the capability to fire a significant portion of its land- and sea-based missiles promptly and retains plans to launch these forces, particularly land-based missiles, under attack to guard against a “disarming” first strike. U.S. and Russian leaders also still reserve the option to use nuclear weapons first.

As a result, President Donald Trump, whom Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly described as having the intellect of a “fifth- or sixth-grader,” has the authority to order the launch of some 800 nuclear warheads within about 15 minutes, with hundreds more weapons remaining in reserve. No other military or civilian official must approve the order. Congress currently has no say in the matter.

Continuing to vest such destructive power in the hands of one person is undemocratic, irresponsible, unnecessary and increasingly untenable. Cavalier and reckless statements from Trump about nuclear weapons use only underscore the folly of vesting such unchecked authority in one person.

Making matters worse, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review expands the range of contingencies and options for potential nuclear use and proposes the development of “more-usable” low-yield nuclear weapons in order to give the president the flexibility to respond quickly in a crisis, including by using nuclear weapons first in response to a non-nuclear attack.

The reality is that a launch-under-attack policy is unnecessary because U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems could withstand even a massive attack. Given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

In addition, keeping strategic forces on launch-under-attack mode increases the risk of miscalculation and misjudgment. Throughout the history of the nuclear age, there have been several incidents in which false signals of an attack have prompted U.S. and Russian officials to consider, in the dead of the night and under the pressure of time, launching nuclear weapons in retaliation. No U.S. leader should be put in a situation that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons based on false information.

Retaining the option to use nuclear weapons first is fraught with unnecessary peril. Given the overwhelming conventional military edge of the United States and its allies, there is no plausible circumstance that could justify legally, morally, or militarily the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. Even in the event of a conventional military conflict with Russia, China, or North Korea, the first use of nuclear weapons would be counterproductive because it likely would trigger an uncontrollable, potentially suicidal all-out nuclear exchange.

Some in Washington and Brussels believe Moscow might use or threaten to use nuclear weapons first to try to deter NATO from pressing its conventional military advantage in a conflict. Clearly, a nuclear war cannot be won and should not be initiated by either side. The threat of first use, however, cannot overcome perceived or real conventional force imbalances and are not an effective substitute for prudently maintaining U.S. and NATO conventional forces in Europe.

As the major nuclear powers race to develop new nuclear capabilities and advanced conventional-strike weapons and consider using cyber capabilities to pre-empt nuclear attacks by adversaries, the risk that one leader may be tempted to use nuclear weapons first during a crisis likely will grow. A shift to a no-first-use posture, on the other hand, would increase strategic stability.

Although the Trump administration is not going to rethink nuclear old-think, leaders in Congress and the next administration must re-examine and revise outdated nuclear launch policies in ways that reduce the nuclear danger.

Shifting to a formal policy stating that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons and that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack would be a significant and smart step in the right direction.

Entrepreneurial about Gender Equality

Hong Joo Hahm is Deputy Executive Secretary and Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

By Hong Joo Hahm

Asia and the Pacific needs more women entrepreneurs. Women’s economic empowerment and gender equality depend on it, as does the inclusive economic growth needed to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. This drives a new initiative by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, generously supported by Global Affairs Canada, focused on improving women entrepreneurs’ access to finance in our region.

Hong Joo Hahm

Establishing a business can be life-changing. Particularly for women in developing countries where it’s a passport to financial independence: a means of breaking out of poverty. More women in employment gives families financial security. It helps guarantee children a good diet, a solid education and reliable healthcare. And because women employ other women and spend more on their families, women entrepreneurs create more inclusive economies and prosperous communities. Potential GDP gains from gender equality in the workplace are enormous, up to 50 percent in parts of South Asia.

But for all this potential, businesswomen face considerable obstacles in Asia and the Pacific. Representation on company boards is lower than in any other region and women CEOs are precious few. Gender bias runs through inheritance, labour and social security laws. Many women work in the informal economy with no social protection and societal prejudice frustrates women’s entrepreneurial potential. Across Asia, women give up to six hours of unpaid care work a day: thwarting educational attainment and career prospects.

For women wanting to start or expand a business, access to finance is key. 70 percent of women-owned micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are underserved by financial institutions in developing countries. Women struggle to borrow in a region where land is required as collateral but where very few are landowners. So women-owned enterprises are consistently smaller and concentrated in less profitable sectors.

To overcome these challenges, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) is launching a new initiative with generous financial support from Global Affairs Canada. Its goal: to support financing for women entrepreneurs and innovators, improve their access to information and communication technology (ICT), and create a policy environment in which their businesses can flourish. It will give twenty thousand women entrepreneurs greater access to ICT and finance.

ICT and innovative financing lie at the heart of the initiative. We want to support businesswomen mainstream ICT across business operations; to make their financial management more robust and their outlook more responsive to new technologies. We plan to launch “women bonds” for women entrepreneurs, channeling private sector investment from developed markets to support gender equality in the developing world. We will work with impact investment funds to target women-led investments. And encourage financial technology (fintech) solutions through advice on regulatory frameworks, training to help women access fintech services and new credit lines to support innovators.

Deeper gender analysis of the MSME sector will complement these activities. To inform policies which strengthen women’s rights and access to justice; reforms which update inheritance and property regimes; and legislation which stops credit being extended according to gender or marital status. For such a broad challenge, we will bring women entrepreneurs and policy makers together, to build a gender sensitive response across policy areas and governments.

The case for investing in women entrepreneurs is overwhelming. They are true agents of change whose innovation can lift communities, companies and countries. We are committed to improving their prospects, to unleashing women entrepreneurs’ full potential and putting gender equality squarely at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific.