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April 07, 2010

Pretty Good for Nuclear Public Relations
Posted by Patrick Barry

It seems to me that Steve Walt is being a little too harsh on the Obama administration’s nuclear posture review (NPR).  Let’s start with the headline, which reads “Nuclear Posture Review (or Nuclear Public Relations?)” Ouch.  Of course I assume Walt was just reaching for an attention grabber, but there’s a suggestion here that the NPR was somehow an unserious or unimportant exercise.  There are a few reasons to doubt that insinuation.  For one, as a facet of the larger nonproliferation agenda - a foundational element of the Obama administration’s foreign policy - the NPR was bound to be a high priority.  Despite what Dan Drezner may think, this is probably as it should be.  The President clearly cares deeply about reducing the threat from nuclear weapons. Having a strategy in support of that objective is kind of a big deal.

Second, it’s important to recognize the domestic politics at work here.  Notwithstanding the fact the NPR is a congressional requirement, because of the public attention already bestowed on Obama for his nonproliferation efforts, ideological opponents like Jon Kyl had an even greater incentive to try to block the President’s actions.  In this contentious climate, the NPR itself became a political football.  As Laura Rozen reported back in June of 2009, the GOP was actually exploiting the incomplete NPR to justify its obstruction of the Obama administration nonproliferation agenda:

A Congressional source says that Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) put a hold on all State Department nominees earlier this week because he is not satisfied with the information he has been receiving from the administration on the progress of arms control negotiations with Russia. “Kyl’s beef and the general Republican argument now emerging against the Obama administration’s nuclear weapons policy is that they are rushing to conclude a new agreement with Russia on strategic arms levels before their Nuclear Posture Review is complete.”

The source of Walt’s frustration is that he finds the new declaratory policy adopted by the administration “largely meaningless.”  In his view, removing the U.S.’ nuclear option for NPT members does nothing because those countries would be foolish to plan some kind of conventional attack on a U.S. ally on the assumption that the U.S. would hold itself to what is essentially a piece of paper.  Turning to the countries that are either outside the NPT or in bad standing, Walt sees little in the policy shift to incentivize them to move in a more cooperative direction. 

To me this is somewhat backwards.  The purpose of the change to the declaratory policy is not to address the possibility of an NPT state planning an attack on a U.S. ally, but to provide another layer of incentive for member states to maintain their commitments to the treaty.  Thanks to this pledge, the NPT is an undeniably better place to be than it was 3 days ago, when the U.S. still had a policy of calculated ambiguity.  As for countries like Iran, yes, this change in policy may not sufficiently incentivize it to begin respecting its international obligations with regard to its nuclear program. That doesn’t mean the nuclear issue couldn’t be resolved via other means (except a military stike). Was anyone really expecting the NPR to be the piece that solves the Iran puzzle? Of course not. 

So in the end you’re left with a document that A) provides some strategic guidance for a major administration priority; B) gives political cover in the face of GOP opposition and obstruction; and C) bolsters the legitimacy of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.  Seems like a lot for a public relations exercise.


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I would like to say this policy doesn't really do all that much.We still reserve the right to a first strike on nuclear powers and non nuclear powers who are not in compliance with the NNPT. So this is really little more than a feel good gesture.

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