The United States' new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is officially designed to accomplish two tasks:
- raise terrorism and counter-proliferation to the fore of nuclear strategy; and
- reduce American reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence
While the first idea is conceptually sound, the second is much less so.
Despite the conventional wisdom that nuclear weapons can't bring any good to the world, they have paradoxically allowed for a certain degree of stability in great power relations since the end of World War II.
Indeed, a world without nuclear weapons may be far less safe than President Obama and arms control advocates in general claim. Quoting extensively from Thomas Schelling, a well known deterrence theorist:
"a ‘world without nuclear weapons' would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems...The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world."
This is not to minimize numerous fearful incidents during the Cold War like the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, we cannot avoid the fact that prior to the nuclear era, great power conflict was an omnipresent reality. In a way, the nuclear era helped usher in our modern era of globalization by limiting catastrophic wars and making most post-WWII conflicts more regional and intra-state based. This is rarely discussed in the mainstream discourse and while reasonable people can disagree as to this line of argument, it should not be cavalierly dismissed.
Looking at how nuclear weapons actually provide stability one needs to examine the arcane strategic concept of deterrence. It is in this arena that "strategic inscrutability" becomes a wise policy. By not telegraphing the potential steps one is willing to take along the escalation ladder, a nation avoids arbitrarily limiting its ability to achieve maximum flexibility during the course of confrontation. That flexibility influences the decision making process of the other side in a conflict.
The Obama NPR removes this maximum flexibility by declaring what could be termed a "near no first use" declaration under most circumstances. Though intended to show other nation's that the US is moving away from a Cold War mindset, it seems unlikely to pay any meaningful dividends among those nations looking to acquire nuclear weapons. On the contrary, it may incentivize others to hasten acquisition efforts up to the point of potential nuclear breakout or with the development of other types of WMDs.
After all, according to the new NPR, any nation fulfilling their Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations should, theoretically, have nothing to fear from a nuclear perspective even if other forms of WMD are used.
However, what are the chances that any nation claiming adherence to the NPT, absent a reckless breach of conduct, will be held accountable? The ambiguities as to whether there was a violation or not will become the focal point and emerge as a political football to be kicked around while covert capabilities are pursued. This is largely what has transpired with respect to the Iranian nuclear issue.
The legalistic carve out in the NPR, no doubt intended to illustrate that the President is not a naïve utopian, will still tie up the decision making process with respect to retaliation unless the President cuts the Gordian Knot by simply disregarding the NPR's declaratory policy.
Additionally, while the NPR asserts our conventional military capacities are enough of a deterrent under most scenarios, this is not necessarily accurate. Not only are potential proliferators becoming more adept at hiding assets and making conventional strikes less useful than imagined, but the pure psychological element so pivotal to effective deterrence is at least partially negated through an obvious downgrading of possible retaliatory responses.
While it is true that the NPR does not gut deterrence as some may assert, it will do next to nothing to shatter the nexus of terrorism and nuclear technology. It also does limit flexibility when the opposite is needed.
Stability in an era of proliferation will not be achieved by PR stunts, but by the fear that one should never approach the realm of bad nuclear behavior lest the consequences potentially prove existential.
Greg Lawson is the Director of Communications for a US based political advocacy organization and is a life long observer of political and foreign affairs.
Related Material from Atlantic Community:
- Baudouin Long: Iran and the Arab States-A Delicate Balance of Power
- Greg Randolph Lawson: The Golden Age of Proliferation is Here to Stay
- Editorial Team: Nuclear Abolition-Now or Never?