ABSTRACT: The United States has long embraced calculated ambiguity over the conditions under which it might use nuclear weapons against adversaries, a trend that President Donald J. Trump has continued. This ambiguity could unsettle some observers, especially those who believe that the United States should declare a no-first-use (NFU) policy such that it would not be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons in either a crisis or an armed conflict. NFU advocates identify three potential pathways whereby a more ambiguous posture can lead to increased danger: downward spiral, accidental war, and use-it-or-lose-it. For evidence, they invoke Saddam Hussein’s risk-accepting decision to pre-delegate chemical-weapons use following US nuclear threats in the 1991 Gulf War. In analyzing the reasoning and evidence of these arguments, we argue that the alleged benefits of NFU may be overstated, at least for crisis stability in asymmetric crises, defined by one side’s overwhelming conventional military superiority. Each of the three foregoing pathways is logically inconsistent and the empirical case is misinterpreted. Nuclear ambiguity may not be so dangerous as NFU advocates claim.
Recommended citation: Alexander Lanoszka & Thomas Leo Scherer (2017) Nuclear ambiguity, no-first-use, and crisis stability in asymmetric crises, The Nonproliferation Review, 24:3-4, 343-355, DOI: 10.1080/10736700.2018.1430552