Time for a Systematic Analysis: U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Proliferation

By Chyba, Christopher F. | Arms Control Today, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Time for a Systematic Analysis: U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Proliferation


Chyba, Christopher F., Arms Control Today


The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act requires the next secretary of defense, in consultation with the secretaries of energy and state, to conduct a comprehensive review of the nuclear weapons posture of the United States. The review must consider the role of nuclear forces in U.S. military strategy; requirements and objectives for deterrence; the relationship among nuclear deterrence, targeting strategy, and arms control objectives; the role of missile defense and conventional strike weapons; the levels and composition of nuclear delivery systems; the required nuclear weapons complex; and the active and inactive nuclear weapons stockpile, including plans for replacing or modifying warheads.1

The legislation does not explicitly call for the review to study what impact changes in the U.S. nuclear posture would have on nuclear weapons proliferation, although the reference to "arms control objectives" might be taken to encompass this. Yet, the incoming Obama administration will make its nuclear weapons decisions in the face of an array of diverging and sometimes contradictory assertions about this impact. Rather than merely selecting among these assertions, the new administration should conduct a comprehensive analysis and explicitly build it into nuclear weapons policymaking across the board. Core nuclear weapons decisions must rank among the incoming president's top priorities, despite an extremely crowded security and economics agenda. The nuclear posture review itself must be driven by the White House if it is to achieve consensus for the president's objectives.2

Diverging Assertions

In January 2007, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) advocated nuclear weapons abolition in a Wall Street Journal editorial and asserted that a "solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally" would be a "vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands."3 In their 2008 follow-on editorial, these authors added that "[t]he accelerated spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point." Preventing this, they asserted, requires a clear statement of the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament: "Without the vision of moving toward zero, we will not find the essential cooperation required to stop our downward spiral."4

Speaking at the American Academy in Berlin in June 2008, Nunn put the point more directly: "[WJe believe [that, with a U.S. commitment to disarmament,] it would become more likely that many more nations will join us in a firm approach to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials and prevent catastrophic terrorism.... We cannot take these steps without the cooperation of other nations. We cannot get the cooperation of other nations without the vision and hope of a world that will someday end these weapons as a threat to mankind."5 Others have argued that a vision for nuclear disarmament may influence future decisions by countries considering nuclear weapons development6 or may help ensure that countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Japan, South Africa, and Sweden do not reconsider their decisions to forgo or give up nuclear weapons programs.7

Despite this, skeptics have been quick to insist that disarmament advocates have failed to establish a causal connection between the pursuit of disarmament and the prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation. In November 2007, The Wall Street Journal published a reply by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown and former Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch titled "The Nuclear Disarmament Fantasy," in which the authors declared that "[a] nation that wishes to acquire nuclear weapons believes these weapons will improve its security. The declaration by the U.S. that it will move to eliminate nuclear weapons in a distant future will have no direct effect on changing this calculus. …

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Time for a Systematic Analysis: U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Proliferation
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