What To Do About Nukes
Posted by David Shorr
Prompted by Matt Eckel over at Foreign Policy Watch, I thought I'd offer thoughts on what looms on the nuclear weapons policy agenda. Matt uses a recent speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Foreign Affairs article by Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal as touchstones and makes a number of important points. The central question is what, if any, purpose nuclear weapons serve in a nation's military forces, starting with our own. How do nukes fit into our military -- and political -- strategy?
To break it down further: in what contingencies would we launch a nuclear attack, how do these weapons function as a deterrent, and what is their effect on potential new nuclear powers? These are the first-principles questions for our policy; a lot of decisions flow from the answers. As pragmatic as Gates is on many issues, his speech shows a substantial blindspot in this area. He is so concerned with the need for us preserve a credible ability to mount an attack, at a technological and operational level, that he loses sight of the credibility of our moral authority.
In fact, our nuclear deterrent capability is plenty robust, and our political credibility is in tatters. After the experience with North Korea, I don't know how anybody can seriously argue that one country's nuclear forces deter another country from building their own. The taboo against acquiring nuclear weapons is a matter of the international rules of the game, and do-what-I-say-not-what-I-do is a counterproductive approach, to put it mildly. (For a fuller presentation of my own views, see Suzanne Nossel and my essay for the Stanley Foundation's Powers and Principles project, which is all about the global rules-based order.)
In rapid-fire fashion, then, here's what I think would be the best policy approach for the Obama administration and beyond, taking the need to work with Iran and North Korea and abandon plans for new warheads as givens. The first major step toward the disarmament required of us under the NPT -- and the most convincing way to earn back our international credibility -- is an agreement with Russia for deeper bilateral reductions to 1,000 warheads. The only way to make such an agreement truly impressive is to have such a numerical ceiling for total warheads, not just deployed warheads. It would make nuclear disarmament easier if we clarify that the United States would only use nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear attack on us or our allies. The next agreement, with a ceiling in the low hundreds, would also include China, France, and the UK. And the subsequent treaty, going down to the dozens (a truly minimal deterrent) would apply to all nuclear powers. There are indeed many complexities associated with reducing to zero (Daalder and Lodal delve more deeply into them), but I'm confident at least that those issues would look differently and clearer once we have reached minimum deterrent levels.