Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Rethinking Nuclear Policy: Taking Stock of the Stockpile

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Rethinking Nuclear Policy: Taking Stock of the Stockpile

Article excerpt

Four months into his presidency, at a summit in Prague, Barack Obama pledged to take "concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons." Yet nearly eight years later, he presides over a program to modernize the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal at a cost of $35 billion a year through the next decade and beyond. To those who accuse him of hypocrisy, Obama has said that he always regarded a nuclearfree world as a long-term goal, unlikely to be met in his lifetime, much less his time in office-and that his modernization program is designed not to build more or more deadly nuclear weapons but rather to maintain and secure the arsenal the United States has now.

This claim is true, by and large, but it leaves open a bigger question: Does the United States need the arsenal it has now? Obama seems to be mulling this very question as his tenure winds down. In a June 6 speech to the Arms Control Association, his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, noted that "the modernization plan was put together in a different budget environment, with a different Congress," and that the president "will continue to review these plans as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor." In one sense, Rhodes was merely repeating the concern that Robert Work, the deputy secretary of defense, had expressed back in February-that the nuclear plan's price tag would force tradeoffs in an era of budget constraints and that if this meant cuts in conventional forces, then that would be "very, very, very problematic." But other officials have said that the review Rhodes mentioned is propelled not only by budgetary dilemmas but by questions of strategy and history, too.

Rhodes' statement set off alarm bells in certain corridors of Congress. In a June 16 letter, Senators John McCain and Bob Corker, both Republicans, reminded Obama that during the debate over the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New start) in 2010, he had promised to modernize or replace all three legs of the nuclear triad-the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (icbms), the submarine-launched ballistic missiles (slbms), and the long-range bombers- in exchange for Senate ratification. They warned him not to backpedal on this commitment.

And so a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the United States stands on the precipice of another nuclear debate. In the 1980s, nuclear weapons dominated discussions of national security affairs to a degree that specialists under the age of, say, 50 would find baffling. The arsenals of both sides had grown to such staggering levels, and the chance of a real war between the two superpowers had so diminished, that the nuclear arms race entered a realm of almost pure abstraction, in which such recondite (and substantively meaningless) measures as "missile throw-weight ratios" became tokens of competition and conflict.

Notwithstanding the tensions between the United States and Russia in the era of Vladimir Putin, this sort of contest has long been abandoned. Tabulations of each side's nuclear arsenal, which were once parsed with scholastic flair, are now hard to come by. No one serious would dream of presenting such statistics as a measure of the "balance of power," however that phrase might be defined. So it's an ideal time-before the renewed debate is taken over by baroque abstractionists- to ask some basic questions. What does the United States need nuclear weapons for? And how many, of what sort, are enough?


Public discussion of these questions has always been disingenuous. President John F. Kennedy's defense secretary, Robert McNamara, devised a formula for "finite deterrence," a concept popularized as "mutual assured destruction," or mad: if, after a Soviet first strike, enough U.S. weapons survived to destroy the Soviet Union's 200 largest cities in a retaliatory blow, then that would be enough to deter the Russians from contemplating a first strike to begin with. …

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