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Nuclear Utopianism

The wishful thinking of U.S. arms control.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By KEITH B. PAYNE
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George Kennan, the celebrated architect of U.S. Cold War doctrine, called arms control policy during the 1920s and 1930s a species of wishful thinking and a vapid distraction from the serious business of responding to the international threats that culminated in World War II. Contemporary U.S. arms control increasingly reflects the characteristics lamented by Kennan.

Photo of Chinese nukes on display in Beijing

Who doesn’t love a parade? Chinese nukes on display in Beijing.

Today’s international threat conditions are explosive. Russian leaders state openly that America is Russia’s primary foe and that the development of nuclear weapons is Russia’s highest defense priority. Russia and China reportedly have extensive programs to improve and expand their nuclear forces. Both have cushioned Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and run interference for Syria’s murderous rampage against its own citizens. North Korea, now nuclear armed, continues its bellicose actions and rhetoric, while Iran threatens to annihilate Israel and to close down the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil transits. Nuclear-armed Pakistan swings precariously toward political instability, and several of America’s foes apparently possess biological weapons that, like nuclear weapons, are capable of causing catastrophic casualties. In this toxic atmosphere, frightened allies and friends in Asia and the Middle East wonder aloud about U.S. credibility and their possible need to go nuclear themselves.

Allied fears and potential interest in their own nuclear weapons should be no surprise. In response to today’s gathering storm clouds, the Obama administration openly states that movement toward nuclear zero, not U.S. deterrence capabilities, sits “atop” its “nuclear agenda,” and that the United States will reduce the role and the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal. To this end, the White House is reviewing current U.S. nuclear force requirements to find additional and possibly unilateral U.S. nuclear reductions beyond those already effectively mandated by the 2010 New START treaty. Tasked to identify possibilities for further nuclear reductions, the Department of Defense reportedly has responded with options that include a further 80 percent cut in U.S. weapons​—​far below public accounts of Russian and even Chinese nuclear force levels.

This agenda appears to be part and parcel of an approach to arms control that places ever-greater limitations on U.S. nuclear deterrence strategies and embraces unilateral reductions. According to senior administration officials, the gesture of reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons is intended to provide an example that will encourage others, including North Korea, to give up nuclear weapons. The immediate, belligerent North Korean response to this U.S. gesture gives ample reason to conclude that it is naïve and risky. Why risky? To reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, the administration seeks to make the deterrence of nuclear attacks the “sole purpose” of our nuclear arsenal. This “sole purpose” policy may sound progressive, but it carries an inestimable risk: It would tell opponents that their use of chemical or biological weapons would be safe from the U.S. nuclear deterrent, despite the fact that no one knows if the United States can prevent devastating biological or chemical attacks without the benefit of nuclear deterrence. Administration assertions that nonnuclear deterrence will prevent such attacks can reflect nothing more than a hope.

Nevertheless, this “sole purpose” policy direction reportedly has led at least one senior U.S. intelligence official to observe that the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons could be a good thing because Iran then would be on an “even playing field” with the United States. That is, the U.S. nuclear deterrent would apply to Iran under the administration’s preferred “sole purpose” policy if Iran has nuclear weapons, so we can find solace in Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms. With the exception of the U.S. promotion of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact to ban offensive warfare by international agreement, it is hard to find precedent for a more naïve view of the world.

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