India recently announced at the UN that it is prepared to convert its no first use pledge into a bilateral or multilateral legally binding arrangement. A similar idea was also presented by the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in April 2014. Manmohan Singh, then, had proposed a global convention on ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons. No first use (NFU) is a pledge to not use nuclear weapons first in any conflict. As of yet, the only countries who have officially adopted this pledge are India and China, even though the reference to NFU was missing in the latest White Paper that China released, which raised a few eyebrows.
A global convention on NFU of nuclear weapons could be a crucial step in further reassuring that nuclear weapons do not get detonated by states possessing them. This is especially critical as it could provide a preview of how a world free of nuclear weapons may function, at least on paper and in strategies.
The path toward a global NFU convention, however, is full of challenges. The first comes right from India’s neighbour, Pakistan. But the challenge is not as much from a single nation as it is the rationale which motivates nations, at least some of them, to acquire or retain their nuclear weapons – nuclear deterrence. The evolution of nuclear deterrence in India has been quite distinct from many other parts of the world, including in its neighbourhood. As a former Indian foreign secretary had highlighted, in a closed-door discussion, Indian nuclear weapons were developed with the sole purpose of deterring a nuclear first strike and not a conventional war. If all nuclear weapon states were to share this purpose of nuclear weapons, then convergence over a NFU convention would be more probable.
This understanding of nuclear deterrence, however, is narrow and does not reflect the utility that many other nuclear weapons states associate with their respective nuclear arsenals. An examination of the nuclear postures and policies of many of the other nuclear weapons states actually highlights the relevance of nuclear weapons in deterring conventional attacks.
Take Russia’s nuclear policy for instance. The Soviet commitment to NFU was officially repealed by Russia in 1993, as laid out in the document “Basic Provisions of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation.” In 2000, Russia released another white paper “Russia’s Military Doctrine 2000,” that clearly etched the use of nuclear weapons in deterring conventional attacks. It stated that “the Russian Federation retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons or other WMD against Russia or its allies, as well as in response to the large-scale conventional aggression in situations critical for Russian national security.”
Another example is that of the US. While certain experts and academicians, such as Scott Sagan, have been calling for the US government to adopt the NFU policy, there remain sceptics in the government and the academic circles who argue that despite the conventional superiority that the US enjoys, there are regions in the world where the US cannot defend its national interests against a conventional attack without relying on nuclear deterrence. Also, for many of its allies who enjoy the nuclear umbrella, a decision to not use nuclear weapons first may put their security at risk and could potentially lead to nuclear proliferation.
Even in South Asia, while India rejects the use of nuclear weapons in deterring conventional wars, Pakistan on the other hand continues to follow a first-use asymmetric escalation nuclear policy. It uses this policy to deter any conventional attack which India may plan, for instance as a response to an act of terrorism perpetrated by groups based out of Pakistan. Development of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) by Pakistan too has been justified to deter the so-called Indian Cold Start.
While use of nuclear weapons to deter conventional attacks continues to be in practice, any progress in the establishment of a global NFU convention, or for that matter, a world free of nuclear weapons, would be extremely difficult.