The New Review: US Nuclear Policy. (Global Notebook)

By Buzescu, Rodica | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The New Review: US Nuclear Policy. (Global Notebook)


Buzescu, Rodica, Harvard International Review


On March 9, 2OO2,the administration of US President George Bush confirmed its decision to place Libya, Syria, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea on a list of possible targets of nuclear attack.

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld submitted the classified 2001 Nuclear Posture Review to the US Congress on December 31, 2001 .The willingness expressed in the Review to use nuclear weapons in order to "complement other military capabilities" as well as the public disclosure of possible targets, threatens US relations with the countries on this list. In the first public statement of national policy to prepare the Pentagon for nuclear action in specified conflicts, various scenarios are listed: a future Arab-Israeli conflict, a response to chemical or biological weapons attacks, and a reaction to other "surprising military developments," including nuclear retaliation in case of a North Korean attack on South Korea or a confrontation with China over Taiwan.

The Review marks a major change in US nuclear policy from the threat-based approach of the Cold War era to a capabilities-based strategy. It was updated from its initial 1981 version, in which the United States discarded the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. The newest version of the plan is designed to guide the development of US nuclear, non-nuclear, and defensive capabilities in order to meet the challenges of an "unpredictable new world in the 21st century."

The United States has now placed itself in a situation where a large portion of the world's population is under direct US nuclear threat, despite the rhetoric in the Review about "assuring friends and allies," "dissuading competitors," and "deterring aggressors." This approach toward enhancing military actions through the use of nuclear weapons comes close on the heels of the US decision to withdraw from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on December 13, 2001. The implications are frightening: in a departure from previous repudiations of the use of nuclear weapons, the United States again seems to be embracing its Cold War nuclear stance and recreating a global situation in which nuclear targeting is commonplace.

Because of the notorious difficulty of pinpointing the elements that the United States would target, there is no guarantee that starting a nuclear war with another country would have the desired effect of eliminating hostile forces. If anything, unilateral US nuclear attacks on other states would build support for formerly impugned groups--from both the domestic government and other nations. While the United States needs to react to terrorist attacks and potential international threats, a foreign policy that includes the possibility of nuclear war could substantially undermine US standing as well as world security and stability.

The new nuclear policy could significantly hurt the US position in the international community, regardless of its actual intention to follow through on the threat of nuclear weapon use. Already, US involvement in international conflicts has attracted resentment in many parts of the world. The Review brings the United States closer to breaking treaty commitments to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, thus undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As the United States increases its offensive nuclear capabilities, other countries will feel forced to respond. Some analysts see a number of changes in official US nuclear policy, such as a reduced threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, a blurring of the division between nuclear and conventional warfare, and an ensuing new range of tactical weapons and defenses against them. There is speculation that as an increasing number of countries and groups fear unilateral US action against them, a large-scale nuclear arms race could result.

Even if, as other experts claim, the Review contains no real changes in US nuclear policy, it reaffirms the key position that nuclear weapons hold in US security. …

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