With the announcement of the much-anticipated U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) on April 6, 2010, just over a year after President Barack Obama’s landmark Prague speech, the administration scored its first main tangible “nuclear success.” This Review is of paramount importance because it will guide U.S. decisions on nuclear weapons for at least the next decade and will have key implications for many nations around the world.
In an earlier issue of the Liu Global Focus series, I wrote that while in its first year in office the Obama administration did a good job of articulating an ambitious vision for the world in nuclear affairs, it would soon have to translate that vision into effective action. This spring, the administration did just that.
In an effort to continue the bilateral U.S.-Russian disarmament process initiated at the end of the cold war, the administration managed to negotiate and sign a new START arms control agreement with its Russian counterpart on April 8. It also hosted a very successful Nuclear Security Summit on April 12-13, during which nearly 50 countries promised to take concrete steps to lock down the global stocks of nuclear material within four years. Much more significant, however, has been the release of the long-awaited NPR.
The NPR is unquestionably a major accomplishment. It is the third document of its kind since the end of the cold war—the previous nuclear posture reviews were issued in 1994 and 2001. Unlike its predecessors, however, this NPR is the first one to appear in an entirely unclassified form. It is also more than a mere document solely centered on the review of U.S. nuclear posture. It goes well beyond that by strongly committing the United States both to nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament, and by defining a clear action plan for the future on all these issues. This plan is broken down into five main objectives.
Preventing Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Terrorism
The NPR lists “preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism” as its first objective. It rightly explains that although the risk of global nuclear war has virtually been relegated to the dustbin of history, the risk of nuclear attack is still omnipresent and, as a matter of fact, has increased. The reason is that nuclear technology keeps proliferating throughout the world and could end up falling into the hands of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, who have repeatedly stated their intentions to use nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in their attacks. Thus, the NPR calls for undertaking a series of steps that include reversing the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, bolstering the nuclear nonproliferation regime, accelerating efforts to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide in four years, and pursuing arms control efforts.
Although the nonproliferation agenda described in the NPR is comprehensive in nature, one cannot but be stunned by the limited emphasis given to the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, two key initiatives developed by the Bush administration that President Obama pledged to continue to support—and even expand—in his Prague speech. By comparison, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1887, which was adopted unanimously in September 2009 under the leadership of Barack Obama himself and spells out broad principles about nonproliferation and disarmament, includes four full paragraphs exclusively devoted to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540.
Reducing the Role of Nuclear Weapons
“Reducing the role of nuclear weapons,” which is essential to help conduct the first objective successfully, is the next logical objective identified by the NPR. Here, the NPR’s architects had the choice to change very little and keep U.S. policy of so-called “calculated ambiguity” (to the great displeasure of disarmament advocates) or go to the other end of the spectrum and declare a “no-first-use” (NFU) policy, i.e. declare that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies (to the great displeasure of the most conservative national security staffers and most Republicans, and to the great fears of some U.S. allies, Japan in particular).
In the end, the NPR’s drafters wisely chose the middle way, stating that “the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons […] is to deter nuclear attacks on the United States, [its] allies, and partners” and that the United States will continue to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or [its] allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons” (emphases added). The drafters, therefore, successfully managed to reconcile ambitions (the further reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy) with realities (concerns about a U.S. NFU declaration in various domestic and international constituencies).
Added to this was the strengthening of U.S. negative security assurances (NSA), with the NPR stating that “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” Although this constitutes an obvious clarification from the previous U.S. statement (which was much more ambiguous and limited in scope), questions remain unanswered. For instance, history has taught us that noncompliance to nonproliferation agreements has never been clear-cut. Think of the Iranian case. So what are the red lines that states would have to cross to stop being covered by U.S. NSA?
Similarly, the NPR states that “any state eligible for the [U.S. NSA] that uses chemical and biological weapons against the United States or its allies and partners would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response” (not a nuclear one). But this is immediately followed by a statement stressing that “the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance” depending on the evolution and proliferation of biological weapons. So here too, this begs the question, “what is the threshold to cross for the policy adjustment to kick in?”
All this suggests that the United States has not completely abandoned its policy of calculated ambiguity, which, in the view of most strategic analysts (including this author), is essential to an effective deterrence policy.
Maintaining Strategic Deterrence and Stability at Reduced Nuclear Force Levels
In addition to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in its defense policy, the United States is committed to reducing the number of its nuclear weapons. Hence the NPR’s third objective, which is about “maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels.” After reminding that the United States and Russia have reduced the number of their operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons by approximately 75 percent since the end of the cold war, the NPR praises the new START arms control agreement as a considerable disarmament success. (The treaty sets limits of 1,550 accountable strategic warheads, 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles, and a combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed strategic launchers.) The NPR then announces the United States’ intention to conduct further talks—to address tactical and non-deployed nuclear weapons next.
The NPR also calls for a high-level bilateral comprehensive strategic dialogue both with Russia and China to promote “more stable, resilient, and transparent strategic relationships.” It takes stock of Russian and Chinese concerns about U.S. missile defense and conventionally-armed missile programs, and announces that the United States is prepared to provide detailed explanations showing that those programs are solely designed to address newly emerging regional threats (and that they are not meant to affect the strategic balance). The NPR then moves onto stress that a strategic dialogue would give Russia the opportunity to address U.S. concerns about its military modernization programs, its recently updated military doctrine, and its non-strategic nuclear arsenal. Finally, this NPR’s section closes by pointing out that a strategic dialogue would enable China to address U.S. concerns about its military modernization programs (although the NPR correctly acknowledged that China’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller than that of the United States and Russia) and the lack of transparency in its military activities.
Time will tell whether or not Russia and China will rise to the occasion and take on the U.S. offer to engage in a strategic dialogue. China, in particular, will be hard to convince because it has regularly resisted such U.S. calls. Strategic dialogues among the United States, Russia, and China would certainly be useful to make sure that further reductions can be achieved safely, i.e., as spelled out in the NPR, by maintaining strategic stability, strengthening deterrence of potential regional adversaries, and also by reinforcing reassurance of allies and partners.
Strengthening Regional Deterrence and Reassurance of U.S. Allies and Partners
This logically leads to the NPR’s fourth objective, which calls for “strengthening regional deterrence and reassurance of U.S. allies and partners.” Here, the NPR points out that “U.S. nuclear weapons have played an essential role in extending deterrence to U.S. allies and partners against nuclear attacks or nuclear-backed coercion by states in their region that possess or are seeking nuclear weapons.” Thus, it explains that the presence of U.S. forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe continues to be justified, although it stresses that their role will be discussed this year in connection with NATO’s revision of its Strategic Concept. Similarly, the NPR states that U.S. nuclear weapons have proved to be a key component of U.S. assurances to its allies and partners in Asia and in the Middle East and that they will continue to play a central role.
That being said, the NPR makes a strong (and sensible) case explaining that technological progress in the U.S. non-nuclear strategic force, which enables the United States to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security policy, will also increasingly take on a greater share of the extended deterrence burden. The NPR also shrewdly adds that “an indispensable ingredient of effective regional deterrence is not only non-nuclear but also non-military—strong, trusting political relationships between the United States and its allies and partners” (emphasis added).
Put differently, U.S. nuclear weapons will continue to play a role in extended deterrence where such deterrence requires a nuclear component. At the same time, however, increasingly sophisticated and effective U.S. conventional weapons (missile defenses, in particular) now make it possible to accomplish some of the desired strategic results previously perceived as only achievable by nuclear weapons.
Sustaining a Safe, Secure, and Effective Nuclear Arsenal
That is why, to quote one of the most famous lines of U.S. President Obama’s Prague speech, “as long as [nuclear] weapons exist, the United States will [have to] maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee […] defense to [its] allies.” This is the NPR’s fifth objective, which points out the importance of “sustaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal,” not only for the security of the United States and that of its allies and partners, but also because this will facilitate further nuclear reductions.
Here, the NPR promises that the United States will neither develop new nuclear warheads not conduct nuclear tests (the document includes a pledge to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT]). Instead, it states that the United States will simply refurbish, reuse, or replace nuclear components working within the existing nuclear test experience, in accordance with the terms of the Stockpile Management Program endorsed by the U.S. Congress.
True, the White House has subsequently declared that the administration has not completely closed the door on the possibility of developing new warheads (which a careful read of the NPR clearly suggests). It remains, however, that the main road mapped out by the NPR is not going in that direction. This was a smart decision made by the NPR’s drafters given how controversial the issue has proved, both domestically and internationally.
Looking Ahead: Toward a World without Nuclear Weapons
The NPR closes on a high note. Entitled “Looking Ahead: Toward a World without Nuclear Weapons,” the concluding section explains that the conditions for the elimination of nuclear weapons do not exist today, but it argues that pursuing the NPR’s recommendations will bring us “significant steps” closer to this goal. One wonders if when completing this year-plus long drafting enterprise (which for the first time has been a truly collective exercise with numerous interagency meetings and discussions), the NPR’s architects had a “rising sun” moment similar to the one famously experienced by Benjamin Franklin, who, during the signing of the U.S. Constitution, declared about a sun painted at the back of the President’s Chair,
I have often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.
Of course, the NPR will be criticized. Disarmament advocates will argue that it could have been much more ambitious. Conservatives will claim the exact opposite. Neither group, however, is likely to be entirely dissatisfied because the NPR is pragmatic and balanced in nature—the secret of a good policy document. The stage is now firmly set for the nations of the world to pick up the ball and work with the United States to move safely into the future.
David Santoro is the Simons Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues.