Despite the Bush-Putin nuclear-weapons reduction agreement, nuclear weapons may be making a comeback. Not long ago they were seen as unusable. Ronald Reagan sought to eliminate them or at least make them "impotent and obsolete." Now the Nuclear Posture Review may give them a new life.
Some analysts believe the administration is considering support for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against rogue states. Congress is debating whether to provide funds for developing new low- yield nuclear weapons. The idea is to develop a new weapon that could penetrate deep into the earth and destroy underground bunkers that protect rogue-state leadership or weapons of mass destruction.
The White House has emphasized that deterrence remains the objective of US nuclear forces. This makes sense. A doctrine of preemptive first use would open a door that for very good reasons has been closed since 1945. During the cold war, there was a consensus in the West that nuclear weapons might have to be used first if NATO were under attack by a massive Warsaw Pact invasion. But even in that case, nuclear weapons came to be seen as weapons of last resort. To think of them as weapons of first resort raises fundamental questions.
First, it is not a credible option. President Eisenhower could have destroyed the nascent Soviet nuclear capability, but he favored containment. History proved him right.
Would a US president be willing to use a nuclear weapon, even a very low-yield one, for the first time since World War II? Probably, if weapons of mass destruction already had been used. Perhaps, if they were about to be used beyond the shadow of a doubt. But solid evidence would be hard to come by. Even then, smart conventional bombs might be a smarter choice.
Second, lowering the nuclear threshold would encourage nuclear proliferation by legitimizing their use. The taboo against using nuclear weapons has underlined the fact that these are civilization- destroying machines. The United States, of all countries, should not want to make their use more likely.
US superiority in high-accuracy weapons and target-acquisition technology means that America is less in need of nuclear weapons than any potential adversary the nation faces. The US should prefer to fight a 21st-century "conventional" war rather than a 20th- century nuclear war. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stressed that the goal should be to reduce dependence on nuclear weapons. …