Analysis & Opinions - National Review Online

Nuclear Posturing

| April 7, 2010

An NRO Symposium

Tom Nichols was one of the experts who contributed to a National Review Online Symposium on the policy changes reflected in the Nuclear Posture Review.

Read the entire symposium here:

For all the sound and fury surrounding the release (finally) of the Nuclear Posture Review, it is not a revolutionary or radical change in U.S. strategy.

And that's the problem.

The NPR, insofar as it says very much, only acknowledges things that are obvious, particularly that the threat to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states using non-nuclear weapons was never a credible — or morally defensible — threat. Was it truly likely that any president, of any party, would respond to the use of a chemical weapon by, say, North Korea, by consequently incinerating millions of innocent North Korean civilians and covering large swaths of South Korea, Japan, and other nations in radioactive debris for weeks? An unlikely response, at best, and one that would have turned the entire world, even our closest allies, against us. And so the NPR tries to make a virtue of necessity by making common sense seem like a step forward. (On the other hand, given the poor public diplomacy of the Bush 43 administration, it probably didn't hurt to say some of these things out loud.)

The larger problem is that the NPR is very clear on carrots — including a long-overdue commitment to reducing the centrality of nuclear weapons in U.S. national-security strategy — but lacks any corresponding sticks. The Posture Review says that the United States will enhance its conventional capabilities as a deterrent. But what does that mean? How, exactly, would those conventional capabilities (which are going to cost a lot more than nuclear weapons) deter rogue states?

And here the NPR swerves away from the obvious answer: Conventional capabilities mean conventional war. The classical model of deterrence that governs our nuclear relations with the Russians and the Chinese never made much sense for dealing with small countries in crowded neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the NPR not only preserves outdated thinking about nuclear forces (such as retaining the nuclear holy "Triad" that includes heavy bombers), but it does not move forward and take on the hard question of what conventionally deterring — and even destroying — rogue regimes would really involve if all else failed.

Until we are ready to confront that reality, our thinking about nuclear weapons will continue to be little more than an extension of our previous concepts, only at smaller numbers — a kind of "mini-me" of our Cold War policies. (It is telling that we publicly agreed to nuclear limits with the Russians before releasing our own nuclear review, which, even if only as a matter of public diplomacy, seems backward and makes the NPR seem like an afterthought.) The NPR should not be criticized for being too bold; rather, it should be lamented as a missed opportunity to send a real warning to future proliferators about what awaits them if they do not change their ways.

Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and a fellow of the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The views expressed are his own.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nichols, Tom.“Nuclear Posturing.” National Review Online, April 7, 2010.

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