Tuesday, April 6, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

Via the NYTObama Limits When U.S. Would Use Nuclear Arm:

It eliminates much of the ambiguity that has deliberately existed in American nuclear policy since the opening days of the cold war. For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack.

It strikes me that while I understand the need to put policies on paper,  issues such as these are the type of thing that will go out the window in the context of the type of crisis where the usage of nuclear weapons might be a real possibility.

However, I expect a lot of electrons to be spilled over this, without any recognition that we are talking here about the utterly hypothetical.  The odds are good (thank goodness) that these guidelines will have exactly zero practical effect.  Not only are attacks that might spawn the need to consider nuclear counterattacks extremely slim, I can’t imagine that some potential attacker out there is going to make calculations based on what amounts to a press release.  Do we think, for example, that the 9/11 attackers reviewed official US policy statements before making their plans?  Are the Iranians guided in their nuclear aspirations by the pronouncements of past presidents or Pentagon white papers?

Really, the bottom line that a lot of people are going to miss (whether they be critics from Obama’s left or right) is that in practical terms, nothing really will have changed.  The US will still have a massive nuclear arsenal and it will still be available for use.1

I actually agree, to a point, with some of the criticisms of the policy, insofar as it is wholly unclear to me what this is meant to accomplish.  And while I don’t think that the removal of some of the ambiguity in US declared nuclear strategy will increase the odds of an attack (I don’t think that someone willing to attack the US reads such policy statements), I really don’t see the point of removing said ambiguity.

Although by the same token, Spencer Ackerman is correct:

Cable pundits and opposition leaders freak out about anything nuclear, as if recognizing that we’re not ever going to use these weapons unless we’re hit with them first actually erodes our deterrent. I submit the more important deterrent aspect of what the NPR will say comes from its embrace of bolstering conventional forces — what Adm. Mullen has taken to calling “conventional global-strike capability.” That stuff? Oh, we’ll use that.

In other words, the likelihood has always been that the US would only use nukes in retaliation in the context of an actual nuclear attack and, more importantly, US deterrent power is actually located more in conventional power.  The US has certainly demonstrated its willingness to launch conventional attacks (if not full scale invasions).

Going beyond the question of the policy statement, I just don’t see how the following is anything other than utter fantasy:

Discussing his approach to nuclear security the day before formally releasing his new strategy, Mr. Obama described his policy as part of a broader effort to edge the world toward making nuclear weapons obsolete, and to create incentives for countries to give up any nuclear ambitions.

The nuclear genie is out of the bottle and I don’t see what possible incentive exists for states to give them up.

The behavior of states like India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and Iran in recent decades all underscores that the incentives for states is the acquisition of these weapons.  They all see the acquisition of nuclear weapons as an enhancement of their security.

Unless someone can create a magic technology that makes all said weapons useless with the press of a button, and hence making the time and expense in making them a waste, states will pursue these weapons.

Beyond that, even if all the nukes in the world could be beamed into space right now, the knowledge to make them cannot be destroyed and so the chance that arsenals could be reconstituted will remain in place.

And really, it sounds good to say that nuclear weapons should go away and on one level everyone has to agree that there is something appealing to such an outcome, as they are truly terrible devices that can unleash remarkable horror.  On the other hand, there is little doubt that the presence of nuclear weapons has also altered the calculus of great power conflicts to the degree that it can be plausibly argued that the reason that there has not been a third world war is because of the presence of these weapons.  As such, it is not a clear and unvarnished good if they were to go away.

And really, President Obama’s rhetorical preferences aside, there is no real possibility of a nuclear free world.

  1. The freak-out has begun, of course, see Dan Riehl (who makes this ridiculous observation “This, while Putin is in Venezuela making nice with Hugo Chavez? This is our response?”—again with the Chavez paranoia—as if Russia doing business with Venezuela means that there is a chance of a WMD attack on the US, William Jacobson, and Pam Geller. []
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3 Responses to “Obama Makes Hypothetical Nuclear Policy Statement”

  • el
  • pt
    1. President Limits Nuke Usage | Political Byline Says:

      [...] Ben Smith’s Blog, Power Line, The Corner on National …, Beltway Confidential, The Caucus, PoliBlog, Commentary, ATTACKERMAN, Le·gal In·sur·rec· tion, Jihad Watch, Wall Street Journal, Los [...]

    2. King of Fools Says:

      This is probably not any change in policy from the past 5 administrations. The only change is announcing it. It reminds me of a press conference held by the Houston police chief a few years back where it was announced that in the interest of public safety, the police would no longer pursue any vehicle that attempted to evade them. It is pretty obvious that the number of attempts to evade police immediately increased dramatically.

      International politics is much like poker. Showing your opponent your hand doesn’t help your game in any way.

    3. Steven L. Taylor Says:

      I take the point, although the more I think about it, I am just not sure that anyone is actually making calculations based on these kinds of pronouncements (or the lack thereof).

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