Rethinking the Role of Nuclear Weapons

April 6 Press Conference Announcing the new Nuclear Policy Review document.

April 6 Press Conference Announcing the new Nuclear Policy Review document. Courtesy

The United States has long had an ambivalent relationship with its nuclear arsenal. As the first country to develop nuclear weapons, we tried to use our (short-lived) monopoly on nuclear weapons technology to our advantage. The policy, articulated by under the doctrine of “massive retaliation,” [glossary] threatened the Soviet Union with nuclear annihilation if they launched a massive conventional attack against Western Europe. But as the Soviets developed their own nuclear arsenal, the credibility of this policy waned. In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration offered a new vision of U.S. nuclear policy, articulating a policy of “flexible response” [glossary] which opened new possibilities for U.S. nuclear, conventional, and unconventional forces. All the while, U.S. nuclear forces were intended to protect the United States through the deterrent effect provided by the threat of mutually assured destruction [glossary].

Today, the United States maintains one of the world’s largest (and certainly the world’s most accurate) nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 5,500 warheads. Even if the new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia is ratified, the United States would maintain a large nuclear stockpile. On Tuesday, the Obama administration released its nuclear posture review, which is an attempt to clarify the circumstances under which the United States would use its nuclear arsenal.

The document has already receive some strong analysis in the blogosphere, ranging from Steven Clemons at the Washington Note, who argues that Obama “scored big” with the new policy, to David Hoffman at Foreign Policy, who concludes that the new policy is a “good start” but much remains to be done, to Daniel Drezner, also at Foreign Policy, who observes that the new policy is of “questionable utility,” to Stephen Walt, also at Foreign Policy, who generally agrees with Drezner but also describes the document as a public relations ploy.

To be fair, the document, as Walt points out, does not radically change the reality of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. The doctrine limits the use of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under some circumstances, declaring that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks. It represents a break from the Bush administration insofar as it limits the use of nuclear weapons against states that have joined and remain in good standing with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (thus excluding Iran and North Korea from security guarantees). As Walt observes,

I’ll concede that this new statement may have some public relations value — i.e, it lowers the priority given to nuclear weapons in U.S. strategic thinking, consistent with Obama’s commitment to eventually reduce global nuclear arsenals. But from a purely strategic perspective, this new statement is largely meaningless. To the extent that it does matter, it may even be counter-productive.

Here’s why. No matter what the U.S. government says about its nuclear strategy, no potential adversary can confidently assume that the U.S. would stick to its declared policy in the event of a crisis or war. If you were a world leader thinking about launching a major conventional attack on an important U.S. ally or interest, or contemplating the use of chemical or biological weapons in a situation where the United States was involved, would you conclude that it was safe to do so simply because Barack Obama said back in 2010 that the U.S. wasn’t going to use nuclear weapons in that situation?  

Of course you wouldn’t, because there is absolutely nothing to stop the United States from changing its mind. You’d worry that the United States might conclude that the interests at stake were worth issuing a nuclear threat, and maybe even using a nuclear weapon, and that it really didn’t matter what anyone had said in a posture review or an interview with a few journalists. And you’d also have to worry that the situation might escalate in unpredictable or unintended ways — what Thomas Schelling famously termed the “threat that leaves something to chance — and thereby ruin your whole day.

To the extent that nuclear weapons deter — and I happen to think they do — it is the mere fact of their existence and not the specific words we use when we speak about them.  In short, nobody can know for certain if, when or how a nuclear state might actually use its arsenal to protect its interests, and that goes for any potential aggressor too. Because the prospect of nuclear use is so awful, no minimally rational aggressor is going to run that risk solely because of some words typed in a posture statement.

One response to “Rethinking the Role of Nuclear Weapons

  1. Pingback: Paging Dr. Strangelove « World Politics News Review

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