But many of the arguments both for and against no-first-use misunderstand it: The policy reflects the power to set the rules of war, rather than some wayward pacifist ideal to end all war. Countries that issue no-first-use pledges boast strong conventional militaries. These states want to encourage a model of war where their army meets the enemy on a conventional battlefield with clearly defined rules—the kind of war, in other words, that they usually win. Nuclear weapons upend this model, because they help weaker actors, the North Koreas and Pakistans of the world, produce extraordinary destruction, level the playing field, and cast victory into doubt. Therefore, a no-first-use pledge could potentially reinforce a powerful state’s strategic advantage by discouraging other countries from developing nuclear arsenals, and by dissuading nuclear-armed countries from pushing the button. This would happen with the assurance that America would not fire first—thereby keeping war safely bound and safely winnable, on the powerful state’s terms.
The same logic helps explain why the United States is far more concerned if 1,000 Syrians die from chemical weapons than if 100,000 Syrians die from guns and explosives. Normalizing the use of chemical weapons around the world is not in the U.S. strategic interest because Washington wants to keep conflict in its comfort zone of conventional warfare. If U.S. officials concluded that chemical weapons were, in fact, of critical strategic value, they would likely soon abandon their moral reservations over their use.
Countries that contemplate or introduce a no-first-use policy are almost always strong states that enjoy a conventional-weapons edge. Since its first nuclear test in 1964, China has repeatedly declared that it “undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.” It’s no coincidence that China is the most powerful East Asian country, and would hold the advantage in any conventional war with South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, or Taiwan (assuming, of course, that the United States stayed out). The spread of nuclear weapons in East Asia would diminish China’s strategic advantage; therefore, Beijing seeks to prevent this outcome with a no-first-use policy.
Meanwhile, India announced in 1999 that it “will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.” In 2003, India qualified its no-first-use pledge by stating, “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.” Again, it’s no coincidence that India is very likely to prevail over Pakistan in a future conventional war. India has a history of winning previous contests, and currently spends about $50 billion per year on defense compared to Pakistan’s $9.5 billion. New Delhi can safely issue a no-first-use pledge in the hope of keeping the strategic terrain favorable.