JHI on the Issues 2016: Moving from a Policy of Ambiguity to Nuclear “No First Use?”

Candidate Statement: During the first presidential debate, both presidential candidates were asked about their thoughts regarding the Obama administration’s consideration of a nuclear “no first use” policy. Notably, Hillary Clinton refused to answer the question. Donald Trump, however, stated “I would certainly not do first strike…At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.”  He then went on to describe Russia’s investment in its nuclear arsenal.

Summary: Trump rightly pointed out Russia’s continued investment in its nuclear arsenal and the need for the United States to invest much more seriously in the aging U.S. nuclear force. And, although Trump has made clear his personal aversion to the thought of nuclear war, he emphasized the critical point that as president, it is vital to maintain optimum flexibility and maximize options in order to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent to prevent enemies from attacking the United States or its allies, regardless of whether the attack is nuclear or conventional in nature.

Talking Points:

  • The United States maintains a nuclear policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which means we do not say whether we will only consider employing nuclear weapons in a response to a nuclear attack or to prevent one. 
  • U.S. nuclear weapons deter the use of not only nuclear weapons, but chemical and biological as well. Stating that the United States will employ nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack could tempt enemies to employ other forms of weapons of mass destruction including chemical and biological weapons.
  • Our allies have voiced strong support of the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity and oppose replacing it with a “no first use” policy.
  • Those who advocate moving to a “no first use” policy also seek deeper U.S. nuclear force reductions and limitations.  It is part of a larger effort to weaken the U.S. nuclear deterrent out of a belief that if the United States does this, it will encourage other nations to weaken theirs. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates other nations do not respond to U.S. arms reductions and limitations in kind, notably, Russia, China, and North Korea.
  • The real fear of U.S. nuclear retaliation in response to a possible attack against the United States or our allies has deterred war and prevented conflicts from escalating.  As a consequence, the number of lives lost to war as a percentage of the total global population has significantly decreased.
  • Those who argue for weakening the U.S. nuclear deterrent or limiting the Commander-in-Chief’s nuclear options are, in reality, arguing for policies that increase instability and with it, the likelihood of war.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • Secretary Clinton should not receive a pass on matters of nuclear deterrence. The media should ask Clinton her position on NFU and why she thinks this would have the effect of preventing devastating attacks.
  • Why has Clinton made comments to the press about slowing down or stopping nuclear modernization at a time when Russia, China, and North Korea are expanding their nuclear forces?
  • Does Clinton believe President Obama’s policies related to nuclear weapons, including the Iran accord and the New START Treaty, have been stabilizing or destabilizing? If the answer is stabilizing, why then has Iran continued to test delivery systems for nuclear weapons (long-range missiles), and why do Gulf countries now want to match the nuclear enrichment capabilities of Iran[1] and want more military systems in light of the deal? 
  • Why has Russia been found cheating on the INF Treaty, is now above New START Treaty limits with more deployed warheads than the U.S., and continues to threaten the employment of nuclear weapons?


  • It would be especially imprudent to weaken the U.S. nuclear force at a time when countries with especially sophisticated militaries, like those of Russia and China, are investing in their own nuclear and missile forces and are pursuing provocative policies that illegally expand their own borders and increase their power at the expense of the United States and its allies.
  • Russian officials have overtly threatened to employ nuclear weapons first, even in response to purely defensive U.S. military deployments in NATO countries.
  • Russia has recently conducted war-gaming exercise that include nuclear attacks again the United States and U.S. allies.
  • China is expanding its own territory by building islands in the South China Sea. Like Russia, China has forcefully rejected U.S. plans to cooperate with our allies by deploying missile defense systems in Asia, implicitly arguing that U.S. allies should remain vulnerable to Chinese missile attack.
  • Moving from a policy of strategic ambiguity to a policy of “no first use” would have the effect of emboldening countries like China and Russia, weaken the U.S. nuclear umbrella extended to allies, and create a highly unstable environment that would increase the chances of devastating attack.
  • JHI proposes a counter-proliferation strategy for a future administration in Choosing to Lead.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-promises-to-match-iran-in-nuclear-capability.html?_r=0