July 14, 2011

What nuclear no first use tells us

Democracy, civilian supremacy and nuclear strategy

Recently, Jaswant Singh, senior BJP leader, made a plea for India reviewing its commitment to No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. In response, S M Krishna, the external affairs minister, reiterated India’s continued adherence to it. What does NFU means to India? After nuclear tests of May 1998, India declared itself as nuclear weapons state and on 17 August 1999 came out with a nuclear doctrine the heart of which is NFU. It suggests that India will not use nuclear weapons as weapons of offence but only for self-defence; hence use it only in second strike when India has already become a victim of a nuclear strike by an adversary. Only exception India provided is: If India is attacked with biological or chemical weapons by a state, it will be deemed as a nuclear attack and India will retaliate with nuclear weapons.

Though the intellectual origin of NFU was in the United States, it settled in practice to a policy of use of nuclear weapons as weapons of first strike on the grounds that its  adversary during the Cold War, the Soviet Union, had a preponderance of conventional armed forces. Hence, it is China which was the first to adopt NFU as its official policy when it went nuclear on October 16th, 1964. When Pakistan tested overtly its nuclear weapons ten days after Indian tests, Pakistan followed the US on its commitment to first use of nuclear weapons.

My primary contention in this article is that NFU pursued by India and China per se is far more democratic than the option of first use followed by the US and Pakistan. However, it is clear that NFU does not make a nation democratic; as much as first use makes it non-democratic. First therefore let me explain my contention that NFU is far more democratic than the first use and then discuss what leads a nation to adopt or stick to first use.

How NFU is more democratic than first use

India has committed to NFU with known advantages as a reluctant nuclear weapon state. A commitment to NFU is logically and philosophically, indicative of policy of restraint in the use of weapons of mass destruction. Under first use, nuclear weapons per force have to be placed with the armed forces for instant use. In NFU, since nuclear weapons are used only for a second strike, the weapons could be held by a different agency other than the armed forces. Civilian supremacy over the military is a well accepted norm in all democracies.

The alternative to the NFU is the first use; it would have meant India as an aggressive nation willing to strike fear of destruction by threatening the use of nuclear weapons. The doctrine of first use would, by necessity, force a nation to integrate its nuclear weapons with the conventional forces. In the event of a war, for instance, the US would face the choice of using the nuclear weapons quickly or risk them “in-the use–them-or–lose them phenomenon.” Such a position would inevitably mean keeping nuclear weapons in hair-trigger alertness inevitably in ready to fire position. That could mean also an invitation for pre-emptive strike by an adversary. It would have been an invitation in a developing democracy to armed forces to play a major role. NFU in association with minimum deterrence really limits the role of nuclear weapons as weapons of retaliation; hence, limiting their role in military planning and budget. This would really help India to strengthen civilian control over the armed forces that it has been so fortunate to maintain since independence.

Second, when the doctrine is based on the first use of nuclear weapons, leaders in decision-making positions are likely to race against time to use them first to prevent a war from escalating and becoming totally destructive of national self-interest. Since the first use doctrine is based on the assumption that quick and massive use is necessary to gain a victory against the adversary at a minimum cost. This pattern of thinking leaves no scope for crisis diplomacy to work to find an answer to the underlying issues that led to a crisis. On the other hand, in the NFU cause for the use of nuclear weapons is open to scrutiny for the international community. Use of nuclear weapons as a defensive retaliation is inevitably understandable and more justifiable.

Third, first use posture increases the dangers of accidental or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons. So far according to reports, there have been more than fifty probable cases of accidental nuclear war beginning between Russia and the United States. Despite best of their caution, false alarms can alert one side, which could be interpreted as an alarm leading to nuclear war. Though there are hotlines working between capitals of adversaries, an accidental crisis could not be ruled out.

Fourth, the nation committing publicly to the doctrine of first use of nuclear weapons may become a victim of self-fulfilling prophecy. It might be pre-empted from considering any other alternate options to de-escalate the crisis. It could even become a matter of prestige of the decision-makers and at the highest-level, decision-makers are unable to disassociate individual prestige from national prestige.

Fifth, a nation following and publicly committing to the first use of nuclear weapons perforce prevents its general public from considering any other alternatives. Public also supports state’s public posture uncritically, at least to begin with. Thus, it acts automatically to create a ‘domestic resistance’ against arms control and or nuclear disarmament proposals. Conversely, NFU gives a democratic role to public opinion on the use of nuclear weapons; it also helps in the promotion of nuclear disarmament. Incidentally, Indian nuclear doctrine states that “global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament is a national security objective.”

Sixth, an adversary, knowing that a country is well-determined to use nuclear weapons in the first instance, might be forced to go for a pre-emptive first strike. During the George W Bush administration, the US president had advocated pre-emptive strike even against terrorist groups. His predecessor, Clinton had used cruise missile strike against suspected terrorist hideouts on Afghan-Pakistan borders in 1998. Thus, there could be a hasty competitive pre-emptive strikes from either side.

Of civil-military relations

It is therefore clear that NFU as an option is far more democratic than the first use option. But the option could be adopted as a policy either by a democracy as in the case of India or the one party dictatorship as in China. What exactly then is the determining factor? It can be reasonably argued that it is the extent of civilian control over the question of use of nuclear weapons. In India so far it is the civilian government that has determined the nuclear policy. In China since NFU was embraced by Mao Zedong in 1964, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) twice (2005 & 2011) made public attempts to move China’s policy to first use, which was thwarted by the Communist party leadership.

In the case of Pakistan it is evident that nuclear weapons policy is controlled by the army. The civilian-democratic façade had no role to play in determining the nuclear policy. If the army gives the right to govern to political parties, they might move to assert by embracing NFU. President Asif Zardari’s statement, in early 2008, is a case in point.  Initially in the United States, under the Truman administration nuclear weapons were controlled by Atomic Energy Commission. President Dwight Eisenhower’s transfer of control over nuclear weapons to the military establishment increased its voice against the NFU.

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