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Thursday, 8 April 2010

Living in the Real World: The Nuclear Posture Review

“We live in a real world, not a virtual world” was Nicolas Sarkozy's veiled riposte to Barack Obama's vision of a globe free from nuclear weapons, articulated in his Prague speech of April 2009. Some commentators on the right are echoing this criticism in response to the administration's declaration in its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), “that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” This would pertain even if the US came under biological or chemical attack.

Internationally, this commitment is important because it seeks to strengthen the NPT prior to the Review Conference in May by providing a clear incentive to be in compliance with the treaty's terms, whilst bolstering US claims that it will not take advantage of its nuclear status at the expense of those countries without an independent deterrent. However, critics charge that Obama is pursuing his nuclear-free idealism at the expense of American security: they argue that clarifying under what conditions the US would consider using nuclear weapons invites potential adversaries to test those limits, thereby degrading the country's deterrent.

In fact, the NPR reflects strategic realities. The political costs of using or even threatening to employ nuclear weapons are immense and unpredictable, particularly against a country that does not possess them. By contrast, the US capability to dismantle a state through conventional means has increased exponentially in recent decades and does not carry the same political stigma. Under these conditions, the NPR's assurance that an American conventional response to a chemical or biological attack would be “devastating” is far more credible than the latent threat of massive nuclear retaliation. Importantly, the pledge does not pertain to those regimes that the administration has designated “outliers”: Iran and North Korea. Nor does it apply to other nuclear weapons states, leaving the US with a free hand in dealing with almost all potential crises where the deterrent could be useful.

The NPR also reflects domestic political conditions by sidestepping arms control advocates' calls for US commitment to no first use of nuclear weapons. This may reflect divisions within the executive, but it also indicates that Obama is prioritising concrete steps towards disarmament over grand gestures. To ratify the New START treaty, the President will need sixty-seven Senators to vote for it. The administration is already treading a fine line between domestic pressure for freedom of action on missile defence and Russian attempts to restrain US defensive deployments through linkage with New START. Commitment to no first use would have opened up the Senate debate over New START into a wider discussion of whether the administration's nuclear policy was weakening national security, damaging the treaty's ratification prospects. At a time of intense partisanship in Congress, it is vital for the administration to defend itself against criticism that equates New START with a degradation of America's ability to respond to potential threats. The President may have established a global security environment free from nuclear weapons as his ultimate aim, but his steps towards this goal show that he is living in the real world and not a virtual one.

James Cameron is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, writing on the development of US anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence policy from 1955 to 1972.


Nick Kitchen said...

So the administration does take 'smart power' seriously. The SALT reductions arranged with Russia are a freebie giveaway for both governments: Russia formally decommisions weapons that don't work with the 'victory' of having secured US reductions of weapons that it doesn't want to continue to pay to maintain. Both sides leave the destructive power of their arsenals at the 'total' level.

Yet the move furnishes the US not only with Russian goodwill but also claims for Barack Obama the moral high ground in the proliferation debate. It furnishes the US with the authroty to lead on nonproliferation issues precisely because the United States is showing itself prepared to be constrained. How can Iran claim to need to pursue nuclear weapons when the US has set itself on a course to abolish its own?

The right will scream 'weakness', though few will be prepared to revive Waltz's 'more is better' argument. Yet with this move Obama is showing himself capable of constructing meaningful coalitions behind American leadership; something his poredecessor was all too bad at, and disdainful of. A nuclear-free world may be utopian; but building a great power consensus behing an invigorated non-proliferation regime may not be.

James said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks very much for your comment. I agree that the administration's wider aim is to build a broad coalition behind a reinvigorated non-proliferation regime, but I'm slightly more cautious on how successful it will be.

The Russians may well see New START as a reaffirmation of parity with the US, not only strategically but politically - at least when it comes to non-proliferation. This will come with a measure of willingness to negotiate as equals but will not result in Russian consent to anything that it sees as contrary to its interests. This would include any perceived expansion of American power in the Middle East.

The Iranian government may feel that as long as the US maintains unchallenged dominance in conventional weapons it is not in the regime's strategic interest to disarm. So the very superiority that allows the US to clarify its position in the NPR will decrease the impact of the Review and New START. Israel's nuclear option will also retard any positive movement resulting from these new developments. In any case, the regime has too much invested in nuclear independence domestically to be able to pull out now even if it wanted to.

So whilst I agree that New START is a step towards a broader coalition, its impact on the Iranian situation may be less than the optimists are hoping for.

Nick Kitchen said...

You're right to be cautious, but I think there is rather more cause for optimism here.

First off, Russia has a very strong interest in Iran not becoming a nuclear enabled state, in particular with relation to geostrategic and energy concerns around the caspian sea.

And although I don't doubt that this move will in any way provide reassurance to the Iranians and that Israel's nuclear capability remains central, this move does begin to isolate first the Iranians, and the Chinese coming on board with sanctions demonstrates that; but the Israeli's as well, as their refusal to participate in this week's nuclear conference demonstrates. Plenty of difficulties ahead,certainly, but cause for gaurded optimism.