HONOLULU — I have attended a number of discussions in recent years about U.S. nuclear weapons strategy and policy. All invariably begin with a presentation by a U.S. official or expert who proclaims that the United States, in the past decade, has significantly reduced the role and importance of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy and will continue to do so. This is then followed by a foreign (normally Chinese) expert who states with equal conviction and assurance that U.S. national security strategy has placed increased importance on the role of nuclear weapons and that the Pentagon is determined to develop new and more lethal types of nuclear weapons.

While one should never underestimate the ability of critics to see what they want to see in any U.S. statement, one hopes that the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released this month, will help to settle this debate. The NPR states unequivocally that the U.S. “will not develop new nuclear warheads” and “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”

The NPR lists five key objectives, the first of which is “preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism,” based on the understanding that this is “today’s most immediate and extreme danger” and the least susceptible to traditional deterrence. This raises the importance of countering nuclear proliferation.

“Reducing the role of nuclear weapons” was listed as the second key objective. It was here that the disarmament community’s hopes were the highest (and its disappointment most loudly expressed). Many were hoping for a “no first use” declaration; a clear statement that nuclear weapons would only be used in response to a nuclear attack by others. Instead, the NPR promised to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, with the objective of making deterrence “the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

The third objective calls for “maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels,” while calling attention to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. To satisfy a potentially reluctant Congress — two-thirds of the Senate must agree if the new START agreement is to be ratified — the treaty “does not constrain U.S. missile defenses, and allows the U.S. to pursue conventional global strike systems.”

It also calls for high-level dialogue with Beijing aimed at promoting more stable and transparent strategic relationship. While China was a “contingency” in the last NPR, here its primary role is as a partner with whom Washington wants to work to promote future stability.

This leads to the fourth objective: “Strengthening regional deterrence and reassurance of U.S. allies and partners.” Again dashing some hopes, the NPR states that forward-deployed nuclear weapons will remain in Europe and that U.S. extended deterrence in Asia will remain “credible and effective.” The bottom line: “As long as regional nuclear threats to our forces, allies and partners remain, deterrence will require a nuclear component.”

This is something well understood and applauded by security specialists and alliance managers in Seoul and Tokyo. General publics, and in the case of Japan perhaps even some senior political leaders, are less persuaded. In South Korea, public opinion seems to run in favor of developing an indigenous nuclear capability. In Japan, many seem to believe that the nuclear dimension of extended deterrence can and should be eliminated. This underscores the need for continued dialogue, not just with the powers that be, but with broader domestic audiences as well.

The final NPR objective deals with “sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.” Most significant here is a pledge not to conduct nuclear tests and to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), although one wonders when the administration will feel prepared to take on this task, especially when confronted first and foremost with getting the New START agreement ratified.

For Asian allies, the NPR represents a reaffirmation of U.S. extended deterrence, including but not limited to its nuclear dimension, for as long as nuclear threats exist. While it offers negative security assurances to Pyongyang if it chooses to come back into the NPT as a nonnuclear weapons state, it is likely to have little effect, positive or negative, on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It remains to be seen if Beijing will enter into the dialogue being offered by the Obama administration, or if it will continue to wait for still deeper cuts in the U.S. and Russian inventories.

The NPR ends with a reaffirmation that “the long-term goal of U.S. policy is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” But it recognizes that this is a long journey and one that must be undertaken deliberately and carefully.

This is a condensed version of an article published in PacNet Newsletter. Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based non-profit research institute affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and senior editor of Comparative Connections, a quarterly electronic journal.

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