What Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review accomplishes

By Joshua Pollack | April 7, 2010

After repeated delays, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review–just the third such effort since the end of the Cold War–is finished. This document has been by far the most anticipated of its kind. Judging by occasional reports, it has been extensively coordinated and worked over–the hallmarks of a high-priority policy document.

The Nuclear Posture Review demonstrates that the nonproliferation agenda is advanced in good faith, not out of some desire to derive benefit from the nuclear weapons oligopoly.”

The agony was worth it. The report is a genuine accomplishment, bringing the threats of proliferation and terrorism into the foreground of nuclear policy. Arriving shortly before the signing ceremony for START follow-on in Prague and the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, the posture review builds momentum toward the consequential 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. The RevCon, as it’s called, will run in New York for nearly the entire month of May–longer than some Broadway shows, but with the ending in doubt until the close.

The posture review report lays out the U.S. vision for strengthening the nonproliferation regime: reversing the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran; strengthening international nuclear safeguards; creating consequences for noncompliance; impeding sensitive nuclear trade; and promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The connection between nuclear posture and nonproliferation is made in two crucial areas, telegraphed in excerpts released before the full report. These decisions send a credible signal to the rest of the world that Washington regards its nuclear arsenal as a defensive asset, not as a tool of coercion and domination. There is therefore no call for other countries to offset it with their own nuclear arsenals or “nuclear options,” or to water down nonproliferation rules in the name of a misplaced sense of fairness.

First, the report rules out the creation of “new nuclear warheads” that would “support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.” This decision makes clear, if it wasn’t already, that the Obama administration’s push to modernize the nuclear infrastructure is intended to maintain the arsenal without nuclear testing, not to upgrade it in pursuit of some marginal advantage.

Second, and probably of greater importance, the report declares that the “fundamental role” of the country’s nuclear arsenal “is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.” This welcome statement of purpose marks the first time anything of the sort has been offered in a formal policy document (beyond the NATO context). The report further affirms that the United States “will not use or threaten to use” its nuclear arsenal against states that don’t have nuclear weapons of their own, and are “in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” In this connection, the report decisively breaks with the idea of “calculated ambiguity,” which had been based on the doubtful theory that nuclear weapons might be necessary to deter chemical or biological attack.

What’s more, the policy shift is authoritative. In contrast to the last review, which was rolled out in early 2002 by a mid-ranking Pentagon official and never implemented, this one has been introduced with a presidential interview in the Oval Office, followed by a press briefing with three cabinet secretaries and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Let’s be clear about what these changes cost, what they achieve, and what they don’t achieve. For starters, the cost is basically nil. Discarding a bit of superfluous flexibility might spark a few objections. But the key choices in the review follow directly from the consensus that proliferation and terrorism have ascended higher on the nuclear security agenda than the remnant of the Soviet threat.

What’s been achieved is an investment in goodwill. The posture review demonstrates that the nonproliferation agenda is advanced in good faith, not out of some desire to derive benefit from the nuclear weapons oligopoly. While this move won’t sway North Korea or Iran, it will help to isolate Iran at the upcoming Review Conference. (North Korea, having withdrawn from the NPT, won’t be present.) Still, much heavy lifting remains to be done.

What hasn’t been achieved is any radical departure from Cold War nuclear legacies. Alert postures won’t change, and the “nuclear Triad” of land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and bombers will be maintained for the time being. The scale of the Russian strategic nuclear force remains the basis for that of the United States. Nor does the posture review call for the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. Major shifts in any of these departments would have been hard to imagine while negotiating START follow-on with Moscow and preparing for a new NATO Strategic Concept.

Timing aside, too, there’s simply a limit to how much change can work through the system at once. Keeping this reality in mind should dampen any disappointment with questionable parts of the outcome, such as the retention of the previous posture review’s idea of developing conventional “prompt global strike” weapons. An emphasis on dialogue with Russia and China points the way toward the future.

Above all else, the posture review has boosted the fortunes of the nonproliferation regime by delivering on President Barack Obama’s year-old promise to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” But that’s the easy part! The real test is to come next month.

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