David KriegerA recent article in The Guardian, “Pre-emptive nuclear strike a key option, Nato told” by Ian Traynor, January 22, 2008, refers to a report by a group of former senior military officers and strategists that calls for keeping open the prospect of resorting to the first use of nuclear weapons. The report’s five authors – including John Shalikashvili, a former NATO commander and a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Clinton administration – argue that current threats and challenges require NATO to keep open this option.

The report states, “The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.” In their worldview, similar to that of President Bush, nuclear weapons are not just tools of deterrence; they are weapons that can be used preemptively.

While the world is clearly dangerous, the threat of first use of nuclear weapons is unlikely to make it safer. The greatest dangers to the West now come from non-state terrorist organizations, which are generally not locatable, making it impossible to strike either before or even after an attack has occurred. The policy of first use of nuclear weapons, which the report’s high-ranking authors support, will speed the erosion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, encouraging other states to develop nuclear arsenals, if only to protect themselves from such policies in the West.

The reality is that NATO, in the aftermath of the Cold War, is an organization searching for a purpose. Threatening first use of nuclear weapons would be a provocative and dangerous direction for the organization. It would make its members less secure rather than more so. It would push the world closer to the brink of the nuclear precipice.

Einstein warned, “The splitting of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” A start toward the new way of thinking that Einstein saw as essential can be found in the thinking of those that support the total elimination of nuclear weapons, a prospect the authors of the report dismiss as unrealistic (“simply no prospect of a nuclear-free world”). If we want real security and freedom from the fear of nuclear holocaust, we had best focus on making the prospect of a world free of nuclear weapons realistic.

There are a growing number of former US leaders, including George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, who believe that a nuclear weapons-free world is possible and should be our goal. They have also argued that the United States must lead the way to attaining this goal. Their recent article, “A Nuclear-Free World,” in the Wall Street Journal (January 15, 2008), sets forth their thinking on the necessity of this vision and the steps that are needed to achieve it.

If we are going to succeed in removing the greatest danger facing humanity – that of nuclear war – it is necessary to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the security policies of the states that still possess these weapons. Developing doctrines for the first use of these weapons moves us 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Like war itself, nuclear weapons use should never be a strategy of first resort, and policies of first use move us dangerously in that direction.

There is only one way to assure that nuclear weapons will never be used again – by accident or design – and that is to negotiate the abolition of these weapons and the strict international control of all weapons-grade nuclear materials and the technologies to create such materials. This would be consistent with the well-established obligation for nuclear disarmament in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would be a far better way forward than standing at the nuclear precipice and thundering out the threat of nuclear first use.

David Krieger is the president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.