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09 Apr 2010 16:26
The Obama administration announced a major shift in United States nuclear weapons strategy this week that included ruling out for the first time their use to retaliate against attacks involving biological or chemical weapons or large-scale conventional forces.
The 72-page Nuclear Posture Review, published after a year’s work, marks one of the biggest changes in strategic thinking since the end of the Cold War and reverses policies introduced by the Bush administration. Among the changes is a pledge not to develop any new nuclear weapons, a move pushed through in the face of strong resistance from the Pentagon.
Despite the reduction in scenarios in which the US would use nuclear weapons, there are loopholes that would permit their use against countries such as Iran or North Korea.
US secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at a joint press conference at the Pentagon with Defence Secretary Robert Gates, described the changes as a milestone.
Organisations that have campaigned for the elimination or reduction of nuclear weapons generally welcomed the strategy, but expressed disappointment that it had not gone far enough.
They want the US to declare that it would retaliate against a nuclear attack only on the US or its allies.
Publication of the review came at the start of a week dominated by the issue.
The Nuclear Posture Review shifts the focus away from a Cold War strategy that saw the main threat as coming from Russia or China, recognising the major threat now is from nuclear proliferation or from terrorist organisations. It also regards having a huge nuclear stockpile as redundant.
The biggest change is recognition that the circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be used must be narrowed. The key passage in the review says that the strategic situation has changed since the end of the Cold War and the US has a strong enough conventional capability to deter a biological or chemical warfare attack.
As a result, the review says: “The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the non-proliferation treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”
This contrasts with the Bush administration, which in 2001 declared that nuclear weapons would be used to deter a wide range of threats, including weapons of mass destruction and large-scale conventional military force.
The pledge, however, does not cover Iran and North Korea because the US regards them as non-compliant with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. North Korea pulled out of the treaty in 2003, while the US claims Iran is covertly engaged in developing a nuclear weapons capability, which Tehran denies. Gates, in a warning to Iran, called on Tehran to “play by the rules”.
A further anomaly in the review is that it allows the retention of about 200 tactical nuclear weapons in five European countries. This may have been a sop to European states worried about too many concessions to Russia.
Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, welcomed ruling out nuclear strikes against countries using chemical or biological weapons.
“I think this is positive. Does it go far enough? No. But would it be possible for Obama to make the great leap we want? No,” Gronlund said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said: “I think overall the review moves the US to a more appropriate common-sense nuclear strategy. This represents further progress away from heavy reliance on nuclear weapons for a wide range of missions.”
Joe Cirincione, president of the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund, described the document as “a solid, pragmatic one that strives to be transformational. It re-orientates the US nuclear forces away from massive retaliations and towards today’s threats of nuclear terrorism and new nuclear states. And it orientates US policy towards dramatically fewer weapons and greatly reduced roles.”
Squaring the circle of deterrence
This week’s Nuclear Posture Review was always going to be an improvement on the last. Published in 2002 at the peak of the Bush administration’s confident assertion of the new American century, the previous review rejected arms control and multilateralism and sought to reintroduce the concept of nuclear war using mini-nukes, bunker-busters and counter-proliferation through first strikes. Obama’s review, instead, places the administration firmly in the multilateral arms control camp, with a promise of future disarmament.
So what’s new? In Prague last April we heard the president give commitments to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. This policy document places that vision in the context of real deployments today.
The US has given conditional security assurances to non-nuclear weapon states before—that it would not attack them with nuclear weapons. This review, coming just a month before the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, gives unconditional commitments against nuclear attack to all non-nuclear states faithful to their non-proliferation commitments.
The review confirms a deal between Obama and his defence secretary, Robert Gates. In return for one of the largest increases in the nuclear weapons budget—to assure reliability, security and safety and to invest in the infrastructure and workforce—Gates agreed there is no need for new nuclear warheads or testing and to significant cuts in the numbers of warheads kept back in case of technical failure or crisis.
The big questions are: just how radical is it and why is it important? While the speeches and articles are welcome, Obama was going to need to put flesh on the bone sooner rather than later.
In less than a month nations gather in New York to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To reach agreement on more intrusive anti-proliferation measures required clearly signals that the US—and other nuclear weapon states—is prepared genuinely to start the process of giving up its attachment to the benefits of nuclear weapons.
The simple answer is that the latest review does not do this. While talking of reducing the role of US nuclear weapons, deterrence remains central and there is little convincing commitment to the deep shifts necessary for disarmament.
But it does take a step in the right direction, keeps choices open and acknowledges the need for further movement. Whether this is enough for success next month remains to be seen. The administration may be banking on other developments.
Timed as it was before the signing of the new Stategic Arms Reduction Treaty II in Prague this week and next week’s nuclear security summit in Washington, one cannot help thinking that the administration would rather the review does not receive too much attention.
It was always going to be a challenge to square the circle of an unshakable commitment to deterrence, assurance of allies and strategic dominance, and a desire to promote disarmament.
The thinking in the administration, and the battles between cynics and those desiring progress, have only just begun. That is bad news when you consider the mid-term elections near the end of this year, and a presidency already wounded over healthcare. But Obama has pulled rabbits out of hats and there’s still plenty to play for.
Paul Ingram is the executive director of the British American Security Information Council—
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