Nuclear Spin

by Tom Donnelly

The Obama Administration has moved from the rinse to the spin cycle in its efforts to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal without scaring the pants off America’s allies. The first rotation came from Vice President Joe Biden in a February 18 speech at the National Defense University.  But the tempo has increased with a Sunday New York Times piece, written from White House sources by David Sanger and Thom Shanker previewing the hotly debated and delayed Nuclear Posture Review.

As my friend Tom Mahnken pointed out over at Shadow Government, there is a yet another contradiction at play in Obama’s nuclear policy.  A year ago in Prague, the president revealed his commitment to a nuclear-free world.  Those were the headiest yes-we-can days, and the speech talked of deep nuclear force reductions, formal ratification of a global test ban and a renewed and expanded nonproliferation treaty; it was all about arms control.

If the Sanger-Shanker piece is a preview of what the White House hopes the NPR headline — that’s Nuclear Posture Review, not National Public Radio — will be, many of the Prague themes have been muted, if not entirely obscured.  According to the Times, administration “aides say [the president] will permanently reduce America’s arsenal by thousands of weapons.”  But while that sounds like a lot, most of the weapons in question will come from those in storage, not those still active and deployed.  Sanger and Shanker also made a big deal of the White House’s rejection of a hard “no-first-use” policy, something long desired by arms control advocates.  “We’re under considerable pressure on this one within our own party,” one source told the two reporters. And they quoted Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association that retreating from the no-first-use pledge “wouldn’t be consistent with what the president said in Prague.”

But the White House has also been under pressure from the Pentagon.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been a strong advocate for refurbishing the U.S. nuclear infrastructure and in particular for building the so-called “Reliable Replacement Warhead.”  Biden’s speech trumpeted plans to spend $7 billion on maintaining and upgrading this infrastructure, but also made plain that the investments were linked to a test ban.

Of course, the debate will begin in full when the NPR, now a month overdue, is published.  Gates was to brief options to the president yesterday, so the wait shouldn’t be much longer.  But the administration’s problems are not simply domestic — though there are strong voices among moderate Senate Democrats and Republicans who are also wary of surrendering nuclear issues to the arms-controllers.  The fact is that the world is becoming more nuclearized rather than less.  While the United States and Russia have been reducing the outsized arsenals of the Cold War, other lesser powers have been modernizing and enlarging their stocks.  Indeed, further bipolar reductions will make the world less stable rather than more stable.  While the United States has suspended its nuclear modernization efforts, others have not.

Finally, the hope that the United States could rely on overwhelming conventional superiority to achieve “strategic effects” is increasingly doubtful.  Not only has real-world experience since the 1991 Gulf War suggested the limits of precision and conventional “shock and awe,” but America’s relative edge is eroding when it comes to critical military balances with Iran and China.  The biggest contradiction for the Obama Administration is not programmatic or budgetary, but strategic: the emerging perception of American decline and disarmament only increases the attractiveness of nuclear weapons to others.

Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies.