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Obama’s new nuclear policy

by Richard Weitz

WASHINGTON — Perhaps never in history have nuclear security, nonproliferation and arms control received the prominence that they are provided by this month’s strategic trifecta: the April 6 release of the latest United States Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the April 8 signing in Prague of the New START Treaty and the April 12-13 Nuclear Security Summit. These events will flow into May’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

U.S. President Barack Obama has become one of the most prominent global advocates of abolishing nuclear weapons, a position for which he unexpectedly received a Nobel Peace Prize last year. But Obama’s actions have been considerably more restrained than is often assumed.

In general, Obama has pursued a policy of nuclear balance in which steps toward disarmament are accompanied by measures to retain America’s nuclear primacy. The former underscore his administration’s commitment to meeting its obligations under the NPT, while the latter reassure the U.S. Congress and allies skeptical of bold new approaches.

The administration’s policies strive to address the aspirations of global disarmament advocates in several ways. The NPR, for example, further reduces America’s reliance on nuclear weapons by adopting an almost no-first-use doctrine. Only in “extreme circumstances” would the U.S. consider using nuclear weapons. For the first time, the U.S. pledges not to retaliate with a nuclear strike even if attacked by chemical or biological weapons.

The NPR also commits the U.S. not to develop new nuclear weapons, missions or capabilities. Obama’s administration will instead continue to enhance the roles and capabilities of U.S. conventional forces to perform missions previously assigned to nuclear weapons. In addition, his administration pledges not to resume testing nuclear weapons by detonating them, and to seek to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force by securing its ratification by the U.S. Senate and all other countries. Symbolic of the administration’s commitment to transparency and openness, the Obama NPR is the first such document to be entirely unclassified.

In describing the New START Treaty, Obama administration officials stress the magnitude of the reductions. The number of permissible deployed warheads, 1,550, is 74 percent lower than the limit of the 1991 START Treaty and 30 percent below the cap set by the 2002 Moscow Treaty. The limit for strategic nuclear-delivery vehicles is less than half that of the original START Treaty. The administration describes these lower ceilings, and its pursuit of other arms control measures, as meeting America’s nonproliferation and disarmament obligations under the NPT.

Nevertheless, the administration has sought to meet the concerns of those Americans and U.S. allies worried that Obama might pursue a naive and reckless path toward nuclear disarmament. Although Obama has endorsed the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, he has described this as a long-term effort, and offered no concrete timeline for achieving it. No date has been set when Obama will ask the Senate to reconsider the CTBT.

Whereas advocates of abolishing nuclear weapons wanted his administration to employ a zero-based approach to nuclear planning, with the burden of proof on those seeking to retain nuclear weapons to fulfill essential military functions, the NPR presumes the continuation of current nuclear roles and missions unless convincing arguments exist to end them. It presumes that “the United States will sustain a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist.”

The NPR affirms the policy of extended nuclear deterrence, under which the U.S. retains the option to employ nuclear weapons to defend its allies. Skeptics doubt the credibility of this policy, which in principle obliges the U.S. to sacrifice New York in response to an attack on Warsaw, or endanger Los Angeles to defend Taipei.

But proponents of such U.S. guarantees believe that they discourage aggression and contribute to nuclear nonproliferation by reducing the incentive of U.S. allies to seek their own nuclear deterrents. In this context, the administration has rejected calls to withdraw U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe unilaterally, insisting that it will only do so with the consent of all NATO members.

Moreover, the no-first-use pledge in the NPR contains an important hedge. It commits the U.S. not to employ or threaten to employ nuclear weapons against states that do not possess them, provided that these countries remain in compliance with the NPT and their other nuclear nonproliferation obligations. The Obama administration considers both Iran and North Korea to be outside this category.

American START negotiators argued with their Russian colleagues for months to exclude legally binding language that might constrain missile defenses or the use of nonnuclear warheads on long-range ballistic missiles. Although some U.S. officials remain skeptical about these capabilities, they appreciate that Congress might not ratify the New START Treaty if it included formal limitations on these options.

Even with the lower ceilings found in the New START Treaty, the U.S. will maintain thousands of nuclear weapons, as well as the long-standing U.S. “strategic triad” of intercontinental land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable bombers.

Having this mixture helps ensure that if technological developments render one leg vulnerable, the others can still threaten sufficient retaliation. The U.S will seek to guarantee the reliability of its nuclear weapons by spending billions of dollars to improve its nuclear-weapons infrastructure and conduct tests not involving nuclear detonations.

The Nuclear Security Summit plays an essential role in linking both strands of Obama’s nuclear policies. American liberals and conservatives, as well as U.S. friends and allies, all favor the principle of enhancing the security of dangerous nuclear materials and reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism, which could plausibly threaten anyone.

Obama has introduced important innovations in U.S. nuclear policy, but much important continuity with previous policies exist. Given the stakes, continuing to rely on proven approaches, even while trying to promote a world with fewer and safer nuclear weapons, is a judicious strategy.

Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director at the Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute. © 2010 Project Syndicate