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‘No first use’ policy is essential

Imlisanen Jamir

India's Defense Minister hinted on Friday that New Delhi might change its "no-first-use" policy on nuclear weapons, amid heightened tensions with its nuclear neighbour Pakistan.

India committed in 1999 to not being the first to use nuclear weapons in any conflict, leaving no space for ambiguity. However, the Defense Minister’s latest uttering that what happens to the future of this policy depends on circumstances does.  

As much as leaving confusion on a security issue as dynamic as nuclear policy could seem appealing to the government, the uncertain situation it creates could have devastating effects.  

A no-first-use policy imposes procedural and physical constraints on any one entity’s ability to initiate the use of nuclear weapons; and such checks are essential.

This month marked 74 years since the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — 74 years of a world threatened by nuclear war, 74 years of escalation, de-escalation and near misses. With diplomacy limping along; treaties falling apart; and ever increasing defense spendings, it is pertinent to work towards preventing a war which we cannot treat. 

Ultimately, a national security policy which aims to confuse people about when we’ll use nuclear weapons, is one that might result in our using nuclear weapons when our adversaries didn’t mean to escalate that far and when there were other options on the table. Taking that possibility away is not without downsides, but it’s also easy to underestimate the upsides — better odds that, in a shocking catastrophe of merely conventional scale, no one makes the mistake of turning the fight into a nuclear one.

Beyond those benefits, a no-first-use policy could catalyze multilateral negotiations to reduce nuclear arms, discourage nonnuclear states from developing them and reinforce the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Instead of creating ambiguity what we can do is restart serious diplomacy. We can refuse to fund a nuclear-weapons expansion. And most simply of all, we can promise not to be a nuclear aggressor. A nuclear war is a war nobody wins, so we should let the world know that we’re not going to start one.


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