On Nuclear Weapons, Obama's Policy Shift Aims Mainly at Proliferation Risk     Print Email

In nuclear-weapons policy, President Barack Obama has redefined the purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Since the birth of the atomic bomb and the onset of the cold war, these weapons have been justified as a deterrent against attack by a rival superpower. That fear no longer exists, and the Obama administration has responded to strategists’ conclusion that the real current danger has changed. Now it has become the threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons and the concurrent rising risk that nuclear weapons may fall into terrorists’ hands. As a result, the Obama administration wants to assign the U.S. nuclear arsenal and nuclear doctrine a new main purpose: increasing global political pressure against nuclear proliferation.

This objective – curbing proliferation risks – will find wide support among policy-makers across the U.S. and western Europe. The only question is: How well does it fit the actual circumstances of global nuclear realities? And, by extension, how likely is it to succeed?

In answering this question, the starting point is the Obama administration’s own finding that deterrence no longer be a top priority. Indeed, in today’s world, no nuclear power – the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain – worries about the need to deter nuclear attack from another nuclear-weapons state. In that context, the “new Start” treaty signed between Washington and Moscow has little military significance. Even its political significance has been undermined by Kremlin statements that Russia is keeping its options open to withdraw from the treaty if Moscow decides someday that the U.S. is “going too far” on missile defense.

Of course, too, the treaty’s lower ceilings on U.S. and Russian arsenals leave untouched the nuclear deterrents of China, France and Britain – as well as those of Israel, India and Pakistan. So it seems unlikely that Iran will be swayed by this initiative. What is the logic here?  Perhaps it is to prod leaders in Tehran to conclude something like this: “Well, since these countries only need a few hundred nuclear warheads, we won’t even seek to obtain five.” Is it likely they will think that? It sounds like wishful thinking when it comes to Iran, a country that most European and American analysts believe is already cheating on the rule of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As an international initiative, the bilateral Start treaty seems to confirm the axiom saying that arms controllers, like generals, tend to fight the last war over – instead of preparing to meet new threats. No one, even at the White House, argues that new ground is being broken.

Potentially more significant, the new U.S. doctrine on nuclear weapons says that they will not be used against non-nuclear weapons states. That is a major change: as recently as 1991, Washington threatened Saddam Hussein with nuclear retaliation if his forces used chemical or biological weapons during the war over Kuwait. This shift to restrict the realm for nuclear war, according to the New York Times editorial page, is designed to “bolster this country’s credibility as it tries to constrain the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and others.” The argument seems to lack credibility when it comes to Iran. So, if it means anything, it must be the idea that non-proliferation is the purpose of new self-imposed limitations on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This has become the core syllogism in Obama’s nuclear doctrine.

The question about this argument – that the U.S. can influence hard-line governments by setting an example of nuclear abnegation – is twofold. It may be only peripheral at best, and it not by true at all. It seems peripheral because there can be few people (even in North Korea’s hermit kingdom) who believe that the United States would use a nuclear weapon except in extraordinary circumstances. It such extraordinary circumstances did arise – for example, a biological attack on a U.S. or allied city from an aggressor state – it is hard to imagine that Washington would not unleash nuclear retaliation against the outlaw facilities involved in the attack.  In lesser circumstances, the U.S. can bring to bear its increasingly deadly arsenal of long-range conventional weapons.

In constraining proliferation, the only effective curbs – judged by recent history -- seem to be police work and acts of war. Intelligence and coercion were both on view in the case of Libya, a rare example of success in this struggle against proliferation. After long-running secret contacts with Western negotiations, Libyan official saw a Tripoli-bound ship with nuclear contraband seized at sea in the Mediterranean. The timing of the seizure coincided with the U.S. military overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the combined impact convinced Colonel Qaddafi to divest his country of its nuclear weapons-acquisition program.

In his nuclear weapons-policy, Obama is certainly working on the symbolic dimensions of these arms as repositories of geopolitical power. Obama correctly judges that this symbolism has waned in a world where their putative use becomes less likely and therefore less “dissuasive.” Even so, there is another dimension of nuclear weapons’ value – their importance as a sign of political engagement by a superpower. A real-world example of this can be seen in eastern Europe: NATO governments there gain crucial reassurance about their national independence against Russian political pressure from the existence of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and its on-the-ground infrastructure involving American troops. This issue of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe has re-emerged  as a NATO debate in recent months. A wing of the German government is pushing for the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons based in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The question now is whether this step will become part of the Obama agenda of denuclearization and of a “reset” of relations with Russia.

If so, it should be part of a wider public discussion than the new U.S. “nuclear posture.” That document was reportedly the subject of hundreds of high-level Pentagon meetings. But there was virtually no public debate. Much more daylight – and much more exchanges with allies – will be needed if the process turns to the future of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. U.S. negotiators will need to be much tougher-minded, too, in dealing with Moscow. There is a dangerous imbalance in this area now. Compared to some 700 U.S. short-range missiles, Russia has several thousand, some of them stationed in places within range of NATO territory – and all of them prime candidates to become “loose nukes” that are a prized target for theft by terrorists. If the Obama administration wants to push its “denuclearization” drive into this realm, it ought to keep in mind a good example: the “zero-zero” outcome of the negotiations over Soviet SS-20s and U.S. ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear weapons. The U.S. refrained from deploying its missiles and then destroyed them, but only after Moscow had agreed to pull back its own comparable missiles and destroy them. Offering real reductions in a particularly critical category of nuclear arms, it was a deal that ought to be a bench mark in this field.  A new negotiation on tactical nukes is the kind of tough negotiation with Moscow that the Obama administration should seek. It would demonstrate how serious Washington really is about its denuclearization agenda – and show whether Moscow shares such goals.

Conclusion on the state of play so far?  Mixed benefits, at best, for any of the parties, including the risk of nuclear weapons. Examined in the light of its probable impact, Obama’s shift in nuclear posture emerges as a different story – one of cosmetics rather than real change. It has been a year since the Prague speech in which Obama called for the end of nuclear weapons, and in the intervening year Obama and his team seem to have discovered that there is very little that can be changed in the U.S. nuclear deterrent – and very little that the U.S. allies want changed. To avoid reneging on his pledge, Obama seems to have opted for declarative changes (which do not have the force of law or treaty obligation). The exception appears to be the new ban on developing new U.S. nuclear warheads, but even it may prove hollow in the long run.  When the Start treaty arrives in the Senate for ratification, the only way for the White House to rally the requisite 67 votes may be to broker a trade-off in which a few conservative Senators can be induced to vote “yes” in exchange for expansion in the budget and research scope of the nation’s weapons laboratories, including those working on nuclear weapons technology. In other words, a long-term reinforcement of U.S. technical capability with these weapons.