Challenges to a Global No First Use Convention

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 The Soviet commitment to NFU was officially repealed by Russia in 1993, as laid out in the document “Basic Provisions of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation.”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.


Image: Daniel Berehulak-Getty Images News, Getty

Posted in , India, No First Use, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas is an Associate Fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Physics Graduate and has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Bristol. His research interests include nuclear deterrence, coercion, and South Asian stability at the nuclear, conventional and subconventional levels of conflict. He was an SAV Visiting Fellow in 2015.

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10 thoughts on “Challenges to a Global No First Use Convention

  1. Arka,

    A thoughtful piece – I think it should provoke some debate as to whether a global NFU is feasible, or even wise.

    I wonder if you could elaborate on what incentivizes a country to declare a NFU policy? Is it a normative decision or based in some other strategic thinking/logic? For example, many would argue that countries with a conventional advantage would be more inclined to declare a NFU policy (such as the USSR). However, India does not have a conventional advantage vis-à-vis China, but does have a NFU pledge.

  2. Arka,

    Solid piece. I think you lay out India’s official’s position very well, and nicely sketch out the complexities of other country’s nuclear postures.

    One question–are there technical drivers that might compel India to depart from NFU, even in a subtle, non-declared way? In other words, as it moves forward with its nuclear program, new capabilities might give India options it didn’t have before. Do you personally think India’s commitment to NFU is so strong that it could resist these temptations?


  3. Good one Arka!

    I do have a feeling that the Indian policy makers, in retrospect, would be dying from within to have glorified India’s NFU policy back then. It (self imposed restrictions) might have started out in a good faith assuming that the world would follow, which did not happen on one pretext or the other.

    Given the current geo-political scenario, I think we (India) should revisit this policy because it clearly ties down our hands while dealing with the regular irritants in our neighbourhood. The world might oppose this move in the name of indirectly fueling proliferation in the region, but, when has NFU stopped countries from proliferating and increasing their nuclear arsenal anyway.

  4. An Agreement on NFU will remain a pipe dream as the motive of all the countries possessing them is not the same. Some have acquired them with the intent of using them, though the circumstances for the same may vary. A more practical way forward to make the world a safer place would be the abolition of all Nuclear Weapons, through a staggered time frame. Only such a move would discourage other countries from efforts to build a Nuclear arsenal.

  5. @Julia: Valid argument on India’s conventional strength vis-a-vis China’s. Infact, this argument had made me question the space for NFU in India’s nuclear policy. Yet, in my conversations with retired generals from the Indian Army, I could perceive the belief that India has sufficient conventional capability to make China’s decision to start off a conventional war with India extremely costly and irrational. This belief, however, is questioned strongly by the continuous build up of China’s military capability in the region adjacent to its border with India.
    From that perspective, NFU to me is more of a normative decision than the one which counts in all strategic utilities a nation can derive out of its nuclear arsenal.

    @Shane: There can be situations that may compel India to not remain bound by its NFU pledge. As Julia raised the point, in a situation where China were to use its conventional superiority vis-a-vis India, over-looking any rational argument against it, I do not see India sticking to its NFU pledge.
    But as far as the question of changing the overall posture and its approach to the utility of nuclear weapons is concerned, even after considering the new capabilities that India has acquired or is going to, I argue that there are no temptations for India to adopt a first strike approach and call off the NFU pledge in peace times.

  6. I think you’re right that NFU is a normative decision for India, but I don’t think that the decision is normative for most countries. Pakistan, for instance, has certainly decided on its policy for strategic reasons.

    However, I think that this needs to become a normative decision for most countries, in order for a multilateral NFU pledge to ever become a reality. If there were a push within the international community to create a norm against the first use of nuclear weapons, such that NWS without NFU pledges were regularly condemned in the international sphere, that might slowly create a situation in which countries felt pressured to adopt a NFU pledge. I could even see this being framed somehow under a human rights paradigm, for example by saying that the first use of nuclear weapons in response to a conventional attack would constitute an unforgivable human rights abuse against the victims of the nuclear attack. Or perhaps it could be better framed as a war crime.

    Of course, we all know that international norms aren’t legally binding and I don’t hold any illusions that a norm will force all countries into a NFU pledge. But currently, countries without a NFU pledge face no international pressure or negative PR. At the very least, there could be some international prestige consequences for that decision.

  7. @Shail: Perhaps NFU pledge ties down India. But would calling off the NFU now help India in anyway. The irritants that you refer to do not take India’s NFU pledge seriously in any case. NFU reflects the broader attitude or approach that India takes with regards to nuclear weapons. Believe it or not, it did help India’s case while it negotiated a civil nuclear deal with the US and while it received a waiver from the NSG on the condition of full-scope safeguards. Are there any specific advantages that you can highlight?

    @ Daruwala: Perhaps working towards a nuclear weapons free world through multiple stages over time is a better idea than establishing a global convention on NFU. But if some states have acquired nuclear weapons to use them, which you argue to be the reason why NFU will not work, why or how do you see a NWFW materializing. The same states will also oppose a NWFW and, for the same reason, a NWFW very well remain a pipe dream.

    @Liz: Agreed. The decision for most of the states is strategic and not normative. Again agreed that using the human rights paradigm to establish NFU as an international norm may add pressure on NWS, which they currently do not face. But the human rights approach to me has not fared well in the recent years. With major shifts in balance of powers across the world and new emerging nations jostling for strategic space with the established ones, unfortunately, it is geopolitics that overrides international norms when it comes to policies and practices. There are numerous instances to substantiate this point.
    I guess thus while human rights approach may work from outside to build NFU pledge as a norm, it will simultaneously be important for the like-minded governments to use their good offices among other nuclear weapon states and negotiate a global NFU convention.

  8. Great piece! Just one question – what do you think it would take for nuclear weapon states to declare that they will use their arsenal for the sole purpose of deterring a nuclear first strike? Is this at all likely?

  9. Leslie: Creating NFU pledge as a norm, as Liz suggested, would be important to create pressures on nuclear weapon states. But along with creating pressures, it would simultaneously be important to offer positive incentives. Nuclear weapons states which already have NFU or are considering the same could use diplomacy to get other nuclear weapon states into joining the movement. Offering various geo-political or economic or security-related incentives depending on what works and is feasible to nws for taking up the NFU pledge could help.

    How likely it is? I am not really sure. But if some of the nws are motivated enough, then I think finding ways to bring the remaining nws on the same page is definitely within the reach. But both civil societies and governments in key nws will have to take this up together.

  10. Granted that there is no strategic benefit, given the current context However, my point was based on following two thoughts:
    1. Since it’s become a defunct concept in the geo-political scenario, I’m questioning it’s relevance to India. While you might argue that it helped India’s cause in alleviating the concerns in NSG, but, I believe that following a principle of non-proliferation played a bigger role. In addition to this, Russia always supported India and US had it’s economic interests, which finally paved the way for the Nuclear deal in 2005. Do you really believe that US would’ve had any qualms with a non-NFU? Considering that they
    a) Practically funded the Pakistani nuclear program,
    b) Collaborated with a military regime in Pakistan while preaching democracy,
    c) Openly support Saudis, while preaching sanctity of human rights,
    d) Are the biggest trading partners with China despite major ideological differences.
    (you get the drift)

    2. This would re-iterate our stance to the irritants that we mean business. The warmongers on the other side of the border don’t shy away from playing the N-card while thumping their chests. At least, this move would cut down that rhetoric. It’s purely, a mind game.

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