Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

U.S. Nuclear Strategy: Old Wine, New Bottles?

Steven E. Meyer


July 23, 2010
by Steven E. Meyer

(Editor: This is the third in a dialogue series of four contributions on the nuclear posture review recently adopted by the Obama administration.)

The Obama administration’s recently announced nuclear posture review can be analyzed within the context of three major variables.

First, obviously they are weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Even low yield, tactical nuclear weapons are specifically designed to maximize the area of blast, burn and fallout.  Certainly, nuclear weapons are not the only weapons that can be categorized as WMD—any weapon can be classed as such if used to maximize the area of destruction. But nuclear weapons stand in a class by themselves because of their specific design and intent, despite the fact that the level of destruction varies according to the size and yield of the weapon.

Second, in the post-Cold War world the dynamics of the issue have dramatically changed.  Of course, states still possess nuclear weapons.  In fact, the number of states that have nuclear weapons or could produce them over the next decade has expanded well beyond the old post-World War II nuclear club (the U.S. Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). At least India, Pakistan, China, and Israel have nuclear weapons and countries such as North Korea, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, and Japan either are on their way or could soon be on their way to possessing a nuclear arsenal.  Moreover, the potential possession of nuclear weapons by non-state actors has complicated the situation significantly. Although the purchase or development of strategic level nuclear weapons by non-state actors probably is unlikely, the purchase or development of tactical nuclear weapons or small dirty bombs is very much within the realm of possibility.

Third, the Obama administration—as with the Bush administration before it—recognizes rhetorically that the situation has become much more complex and dangerous.  But it is difficult to see where either the Bush or Obama administrations have come to terms effectively with an environment in which it is very difficult to locate and track nuclear weapons, especially smaller and tactical weapons.  Many smaller weapons—up to and including Cruise missiles—can be hidden in ways and places that are enormously difficult to uncover. Both the Obama and Bush administrations have been clinging to the old state-bound model of the international order rather than engaging in the extremely difficult work of pursuing a nuclear policy that conforms to the emerging world of the 21st century. 

It is this mind-set that has led the Obama administration to focus on the old START agreement with Russia that expired in December 2009.  The administration placed considerable emphasis on renegotiating this 1970s START pact and heralded the new agreement in April of this year with a considerable sense of accomplishment.  It is always beneficial for countries holding major stores of nuclear weapons to agree on how they should be handled and what their number and configuration should be.  The U.S. and Russian administrations should be applauded for extending the old START agreement.

At the same time, the April 2010 agreement should be recognized for what it is and for what it is not.  It is a useful agreement that helps clarify the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship. Its great benefit is helping to control accidental strategic nuclear launches.  This is not the major nuclear agreement it is being trumpeted as by the Obama administration.

Russia is not the Soviet Union—even though there are scores of U.S. policy makers and political illuminati who continue to think this is the case.  The Russians cannot afford a major, strategic nuclear arsenal. It is such an enormous financial drain that Moscow will have to begin cutting back under any circumstances. Aside from an accidental launch, there is no nuclear threat from Russia.

The real and growing threat from nuclear weapons—and, indeed, all forms of WMD—comes from the growing number of newly nuclear-armed and potentially nuclear-armed states and non-state actors.  These are the two inter-related arenas that the Obama administration must focus on if it is to make a significant contribution to controlling nuclear weapons and eliminating as many of them as possible.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of the current and previous administrations, the issue has not been nuclear weapons as such, but who has them and whether they are considered allies.  Up to a point this is valid, because intentions are important.  But the nuclear club is growing so rapidly that instability is quickly becoming a function of international structure as well as intention.  It is, therefore, no longer valid, wise or even sane to rest nuclear policy on intentions—or presumed intentions—alone.  For example, this is what the U.S. has done in looking askance at Israel’s nuclear capability, hammering Iran without focusing on the regional context, or, at best, ignoring and, at worst, overtly supporting nuclear arms development in India and Pakistan.  Also, while there is currently no solid intelligence indicating that any non-state actors have nuclear weapons, it is highly likely that non-state actors eventually will be able to secure some form of nuclear arms, probably easily concealed and user-friendly tactical warheads or dirty bombs. Al-Qaeda is the most likely non-state actor to acquire a low-level nuclear capability, but the disparate nature of terrorist organizations in the contemporary environment makes the situation very volitile. 

The Obama administration can make a significant contribution to nuclear security with five basic steps:

First, continue actively to cooperate with the old nuclear powers, primarily to cut their strategic and tactical arsenals to bare minimums—enough only to provide defensive, second strike capability.  This should include a renunciation by all of the old club’s now obsolete first strike capability. Nuclear competition among the original powers must be relegated to the past—it is in their mutual interest to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other states and non-state actors. 

Second, it is well past time for the U.S. Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996.  The U.S. has signed the CTBT, but it has never been ratified.  There is no longer any need to test nuclear weapons.  The goal must be elimination to the fullest extent possible. Ratification of the CTBT by the Senate would send a powerful signal to the rest of the world about the American willingness and capability to lead on the nuclear issue.

Third, the Obama administration should greatly expand the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program begun in 1992. The need to sequester nuclear weapons is now even greater than it was in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The administration can update and expand Nunn-Lugar to entice newer nuclear states, potential nuclear states and non-state actors to dismantle or foreswear nuclear weapons in exchange for foreign aid, economic credits, and trade agreements.

Fourth, the administration needs to adopt a dual regional and functional approach to nuclear disarmament.  Instead of focusing on specific countries, begin to engage newer nuclear states in regional dialogues about reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons.  At the same time, begin to develop a strategy to approach non-state actors—even our enemies—to renounce nuclear weapons. 

Finally, the Obama administration needs to greatly enhance intelligence capabilities—well beyond what is now in place.  Although the major intelligence organizations of the U.S. and other major countries all have units that deal with nuclear weapons, cooperation is neither as deep nor as international as it should be. We need new intelligence capability to focus in greater depth on new nuclear and potential nuclear states and non-state actors.  This added attention should focus not only on the question of nuclear capability, but also on what carrots and sticks will be useful in enticing nuclear weapons holders to reduce or eliminate their weapons.

The nuclear window is open…but may not be for long.

—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Security Studies and Political Science
    National Defense University
    (The views expressed here are the author's alone.)

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