First Strike: The US and the World’s Most Dangerous Nuclear Policy

On October 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not use nuclear weapons; on the same day, US President Joe Biden said he would.

Two days earlier, at talks being held between the US, Japan and South Korea, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman explained that the "ironclad" US commitment to defending Japan and South Korea meant that the US "will use the full range of U.S. defense capabilities to defend our allies, including nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities."

That line is striking and dangerous. It means that the US first strike policy would be triggered, not only by an attack on the US, but by an attack on US allies: and not just its NATO allies.

The line is striking, but Sherman was just articulating official US policy. The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review states that “The United States would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.” The US also insists that it “has never adopted a “no first use” policy.”

The US nuclear policy has three shocking features: the first strike policy means it would be willing to initiate a nuclear war by striking first, it would do so even when faced by a non-nuclear conventional threat even though it has the largest and most capable conventional forces in the world, and it would do so to defend not only itself but also its allies and even its "partners."

There had been great hope that the US would repeal its first strike policy. At the recent UN General Assembly First Committee session on October 19, China’s ambassador for disarmament affairs, Li Song, declared that "China has solemnly committed to no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally." 

In a 2020 article in Foreign Affairs written during the presidential campaign, Biden had promised that he would take “steps to demonstrate our commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons." He said that “the sole purpose of the US nuclear arsenal should be deterring – and, if necessary, retaliating against – a nuclear attack," and promised that "As president, I will work to put that belief into practice.”

But he didn’t. On October 27, the same day Wendy Sherman was explaining that the US would use nuclear weapons to defend Japan and South Korea, the Department of Defense released the long delayed 2022 Nuclear Posture Review. The updated review continues to state "The United States affirms that its nuclear forces deter all forms of strategic attack. They serve to deter nuclear employment of any scale directed against the US homeland or the territory of Allies and partners. …"

It preserves the conclusion "that nuclear weapons are required to deter not only nuclear attack, but also a narrow range of other high consequence, strategic-level attacks."

The Nuclear Posture Review says that "the fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our Allies, and partners. The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its Allies or partners."

The Nuclear Posture Review than clearly states that "We conducted a thorough review of a broad range of options for nuclear declaratory policy – including both No First Use and Sole Purpose policies – and concluded that those approaches would result in unacceptable levels of risk. …"

The most recent Nuclear Posture Review, then, specifically preserves a first strike policy as well as insisting upon the right to use nuclear weapons in the event of a non-nuclear threat and the right to use nuclear weapons to protect, not only its own territory, but the territory of its allies and even its partners.

Though the West reacted strongly to Putin’s warning that “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us," official US policy goes beyond Putin’s warning. Russia’s Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the field of nuclear deterrence, says that Russia "hypothetically" could allow the use of nuclear weapons only if there is "aggression using conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened." Russia’s nuclear policy does not extend to the protection of allies and partners and is only triggered "when the very existence of the state is threatened."

And on the same day that the US published its official policy that it would use nuclear weapons in a first strike, Russia was saying that it would not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine even if what it considers its territory was threatened.

Since Russia considers Crimea and now the Donbas, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia to be part of Russian territory, an attack on any of those regions, and especially Crimea, could trigger the Russian nuclear strike policy. Putin, on October 27, though, said that Russia would not use a nuclear weapon in that situation. "We see no need for that," Putin said. "There is no point in that, neither political, nor military."

The updated Nuclear Posture Review makes it clear that it is the US that has the most dangerous nuclear policy in the world. China has recommitted to its no first strike policy. India has always had a no first strike policy. Russia does not. But it confines its nuclear employment policy to defending only Russian territory. Only the US reserves the right to a first strike policy and the right to extend its nuclear umbrella beyond its territory to the territory of its allies and partners.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.