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
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
Third, a unilateral nuclear policy, symbolized by a preemptive
doctrine, would be the straw that broke the camel's back among
America's key alliances. …