Post-Nuclear Strategy

Post-Nuclear Strategy

Mini Teaser: Everyone wants them, but no one can use them. What's the point of nuclear weapons?

by Author(s): Barry M. Blechman

Nuclear weapons are overrated. They are no magic talisman that, by simple possession, can guarantee the survival of a regime. After all, the Soviet Union, the world's second-largest nuclear power, lost not only its sphere of influence, but ultimately its very existence as a sovereign nation. Currently, Israel, the world's sixth nuclear power, is locked in a protracted struggle with the Palestinians, a conflict with the most serious economic, political and psychological implications for Israel's fundamental sense of national security--and the possession of nuclear weapons makes not one iota of difference. Nor do nuclear weapons give a state any advantage in dealing with other foreign policy challenges. The United States experienced more than 50,000 fatalities and a searing defeat in Vietnam while possessing tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that were useless white elephants in dealing with the Viet Cong. The same might be said of biological and chemical weapons.

But the weapons should not be belittled; their destructive capacity deserves respect. And they continue to be viewed by many states as the great equalizer in international affairs. India, for example, began to develop nuclear weapons after its defeat by China in 1962. Pakistan followed suit after its defeat by India in 1971, and North Korea appears to have initiated its program after losing its nuclear-armed protector, the USSR, in 1991.

We no longer live in an era where the technologies needed to craft weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are the preserve of a few major powers and where state actors alone have a bearing on international affairs. The moratorium on the use of nuclear weapons--which has lasted more than sixty years, an extraordinary amount of time given the expectations in 1945--may be drawing to a close. In the early years of the 21st century, the WMD business already resembles an imperfect free market, with eight known nuclear players and two more in the wings. Biological and chemical weapons are experiencing their own renaissance. Some of the newer entrants, not to mention apocalyptic terrorist groups, may be far more difficult to deter from using such weapons than the established powers have been.

President George W. Bush has made reversing the proliferation of WMD a central element of his foreign policy. Pre-emptive actions to forestall hostile acts by rogue states and terrorist groups were a leitmotif of his first term, which, among other things, can claim credit for the removal of Saddam Hussein as a potential proliferator, for Libya's disarmament and for the successful establishment of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). However, far more is required before the president can claim success, including progress on the tough cases of Iran and North Korea.

The president's second four-year mandate offers a unique opportunity to realize the laudable goals declared during his first term. This time, however, half measures will not suffice. Time is running out, and the United States cannot afford to let the current diplomatic hiatus regarding Iran and North Korea drag on indefinitely. Without major and prompt changes in the administration's approach to these two nations' nuclear ambitions, there will be ten nuclear powers on the world stage when President Bush leaves office, and the most recent entrants to the nuclear club will be the most dangerous.

In June 2004, the Bush Administration announced that the United States would cut its stockpile of nuclear weapons by nearly one-half over the next eight years, reaching its lowest level in several decades. Operationally deployed nuclear weapons would be reduced from more than 6,000 when President Bush took office to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the year 2012. The total stockpile would be similarly reduced, from more than 10,000 in 2001 to about 6,000 in 2012. This capstone of a long series of actions by President Bush made good on his 2000 campaign pledge to rely less on nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy and to reduce U.S. nuclear forces accordingly.

The administration's 2001 examination of nuclear plans and policies, called the Nuclear Posture Review, had been informed by a similar view, as were subsequent decisions. Throughout his first term, the president acted fairly consistently to de-emphasize the role of nuclear capabilities in U.S. national security policy and to diminish their prominence in international relationships around the globe. More significantly, other types of military capabilities started supplanting nuclear weapons in U.S. strategic doctrine. Missile defenses, for example, were elevated as an equal leg of U.S. strategic capabilities. According to the new policy, the United States would rely less on threats of massive destruction in retaliation for an attack and more on the projected capabilities of modern defense systems to deny an enemy the ability to attack the U.S. homeland. In addition, the administration stated that long-range, precisely targeted conventional munitions would be substituted for nuclear weapons in some missions. Indeed, judging by the rhetoric of Bush Administration officials, conventional-weapon options are clearly preferred in most situations.

Finally, the administration put more teeth into efforts to stem and reverse WMD proliferation, utilizing secret diplomacy to negotiate the termination of Libya's nuclear program, covert actions to intercept shipments of nuclear components, and the very public Proliferation Security Initiative to enlist other nations in cooperative action to intercept shipments of WMD-related materials.

During the first term, however, the Bush Administration sent contradictory signals to both existing nuclear powers and would-be proliferators by arguing for the need to examine new low-yield nuclear weapons, including so-called "bunker busters", and by emphasizing pre-emption as the centerpiece of its counter-proliferation policy. Admittedly, the administration's "National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction", released in December 2002, made reference both to counter-proliferation against the use of WMD and to strengthened non-proliferation efforts to prevent states and terrorists from acquiring WMD materials. But the latter part of the strategy--by nature a multilateral approach--was belied by the administration's tough approach to North Korea and Iran, and by the apparent unilateralism that seemed to dominate the administration's approach to international affairs during the first term. Similarly, the counter-proliferation objective was overshadowed by other competing administration goals, particularly the need to gain international cooperation on the War on Terror. Post-9/11 policy toward Pakistan, including a seemingly permissive attitude toward President Pervez Musharraf's protection of A. Q. Khan and the subsequent failure to extract much information about his nuclear proliferation network, is a case in point.

Undoubtedly, the most serious gamble in recent U.S. policy involves Iran and North Korea. The administration's unwillingness to deal directly with these countries has allowed them more time to develop nuclear programs, to the point where North Korea is probably already a nuclear power and is most unlikely to be persuaded to give up its current arsenal. There may still be time to prevent Iran's ascent to nuclear-power status, but the administration's refusal to talk directly with Iranian officials continues to hamper its ability to strike a deal. Coming from the world's most powerful nation, this policy of refusing to talk directly with repugnant regimes is counter-productive. It assumes one of two positions: that the United States can live securely in a world in which hostile states like North Korea, Iran and possibly others have nuclear weapons; or that third nations can deal effectively on America's behalf with the regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran. Neither is likely to be true.

Though the administration articulated the right policy and registered some early successes, it now faces the near-term possibility of two major failures. Should both Iran and North Korea join the club of nuclear powers, additional proliferators are certain to follow, with Saudi Arabia and Japan as the most likely candidates in the first round. If it is serious about containing and reversing WMD proliferation, the Bush Administration should extend, deepen and accelerate implementation of the policies put in place during the previous four years.

Are Nuclear Weapons Useless?

There are two prevailing scenarios when assessing the threat posed to the United States by WMD-armed actors. The first, and the one that has received the most attention since the September 11 attacks, involves the risk of terrorist groups acquiring WMD materials and using them against either the U.S. homeland or U.S. forces and interests overseas. The second scenario concerns WMD-armed countries with hostile intent. The threat envisioned would typically be an attack by a relatively weak but WMD-armed hostile nation on the homeland, on forces deployed overseas or on an ally.

What action might be taken against such WMD threats? In the case of suicide terrorists (or a suicidal leader), U.S. military capabilities--including America's nuclear arsenal--cannot serve as effective deterrents; threats of punishment will never dissuade people willing to sacrifice their lives in suicide missions. By definition, then, U.S. capabilities can only have military utility: either to pre-empt and destroy such threats--assuming they can be identified before their deployment and use--or to defend against them once an attack is underway. Against a small, WMD-armed power, deterrence might work, and even the overwhelming conventional U.S. military capabilities might be powerful enough to prevent hostile action.

In either case, what would be needed to defend the United States and U.S. interests would be: brilliant intelligence (probably the most important element); an effective, integrated command-and-control system that has been well planned and rehearsed (as the time available for action is likely to be very short); long-range and prompt means of delivery; small numbers of flexible, precise and effective conventional weapons; and adequate protection for the homeland and for U.S. forces deployed abroad. This last element includes not only developing an effective missile defense system, but putting into place a comprehensive set of defensive measures against threats to the U.S. homeland. Overcoming the Defense Department's lingering reluctance to allocate resources to this function is necessary to ensure that America is better prepared to face an unconventional attack the next time it occurs.

Essay Types: Essay