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April 06, 2010

Obama's Nuclear Posture Review: Setting the Stage for Future Gains
Posted by The Editors

This post was written by Dr. Barry M. Blechman, co-founder and Distinguished Fellow of the Henry L. Stimson Center.  Barry Blechman is also the co-editor of Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty and National Perspectives on Nuclear Disarmament

Today, President Obama moved the nation’s official thinking about nuclear weapons into the 21st Century by stating clearly in the “Nuclear Posture Review” that the first objective of US nuclear policies are to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Finally, with that statement, US nuclear planning has moved away from the ancient threats of the Cold War and toward confronting the immediate dangers of the world we live in today.

The document goes further by stating that the second goal is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy – an essential element of any credible non-proliferation policy. And the new nuclear posture begins to accomplish this goal by stating that the US will not use nuclear weapons against states that do not themselves possess nuclear weapons and are compliant with their obligations under the Non-proliferation Treaty – every nation in the world save 13. It thus simultaneously provides reassurances to non-nuclear states, erasing past policies that threatened nuclear responses in retaliation for conventional, chemical or biological attacks and, at the same time, makes clear to nations that are violating their NPT commitments, like Iran, that they do so at their own peril.

Simultaneously, the new posture makes clear that although the US goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, it does not plan to do so unilaterally. Other nations must join us in reducing arsenals: First, the Russians, who have an arsenal comparable to ours. The posture review calls for new talks with Russia, this time extending beyond the operational long-range weapons covered by the NEW START agreement to all types of nuclear weapons in the two countries’ arsenals. Second, the new policy calls on China to engage in a dialogue about the purposes and goals of its ongoing nuclear modernization. Implicitly recognizing that because China’s arsenal is so much smaller than the United States’ it is unrealistic to call for negotiations on mutual reductions, it nonetheless makes clear that as the world’s third nuclear power, it is time for China to become more transparent about the roles of its weapons and their ultimate objectives.

The new nuclear posture, combined with the budget the President submitted in February -- makes one other point – emphatically. The US wants to eliminate all nuclear weapons, but it is not prepared to do so unilaterally. We are willing to disarm so long as other nuclear powers are willing to do so with us. Until that happy day arrives, the US will maintain the infrastructure of laboratories and facilities necessary to maintain a safe, secure , and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons and, given how long this might take, begin or continue programs to eventually replace the missiles and bombers that currently would deliver nuclear weapons. We won’t develop new kinds of nuclear weapons; we have no need for them. But neither will we permit our existing weapons to become unreliable.

These decisions should make two things clear. First, allies depending on our nuclear guarantees, should be reassured that we will do whatever is necessary to maintain the credibility of our commitments. Second, adversaries, who may have mistaken President Obama’s ambitious goals for disarmament as a lack of will to maintain an effective deterrent, should now understand that he will not permit our capabilities to atrophy.

Many, including this writer, wish disarmament could be achieved more easily and more quickly. Unfortunately, not all national leaders share this view. Given the world in which we live, the US needs leverage to persuade nations to move with us toward a world free of the threat of nuclear war. The Nuclear Posture Review establishes the policies that will enable the United States to pursue disarmament safely, no matter how long it takes.


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There are vast differences between the right, the center, and the left on nuclear weapons policy, although the centre and the left have more in common than do any of them with the right. The problem is that people tend not to differentiate between differences on force structure and differences on policy. The centre may align more closely with the right on force structure (the left prefers deep cuts, the right prefers no cuts, and the center prefers modest cuts in warheads that will not alter the current deployments of delivery vehicles But the centre does not even come close to aligning with the right on strategy and doctrine. Read Keith Payne's stuff. He, and others on the right, believe that U.S. nuclear weapons can and should play a role in deterring and responding to all kinds of threats, from CW and BW, to conventional challenges, to terrorism to, according to General Chilton, maybe even cyber attacks. This is an extraordinarily expansive role for nuclear weapons.

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