Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

Answering the Nuclear Hypothetical: Past Due or Faux Pas?

Posted by K.E. White on August 20, 2007


Summary: Okay, okay—we get it: A complete prohibition on US presidents or candidates for the White House, answering hypothetical questions is silly. But where did the original topic go—why does America have a nuclear deterrent and how should it be used? For that we check in with Brookings scholar Ivo H. Daalder.

Michael Kinsley argues in Slate that presidential candidates should answer hypothetical questions:

A refusal or inability to answer hypothetical questions is nothing to be proud of. In fact, it ought to be a disqualification for public office. Anyone who doesn’t ponder hypothetical questions all the time is unfit for the task of governing. In fact, it’s hard to see how any halfway intelligent person can manage to avoid taking up hypothetical questions a dozen times a day.

Okay, but what about what caused all this hubbub—Senator Barack Obama’s commentary on the use (or rather non-use) of nuclear weapons. (Here’s a resource for those not hip to this now dated dispute)

For that Brooking’s Ivo H. Daalder first recaps Hilary’s criticism of Obama’s discussion of America’s nuclear deterrence policy: that today’s main threats come from state actors who must be held at bay through our nuclear ambiguity. But Daalder goes on to write:

There is, however, another view of nuclear weapons—one that recognises how today’s threats are fundamentally different from the cold war days. America no longer fears a deliberate attack against its territory—nuclear or otherwise—from the likes of Russia or China. Nor, given its overwhelming conventional advantage, does it need nuclear weapons to defeat any threat of aggression that might exist.

America’s new nightmare is rather that nuclear weapons and technologies will spread to unstable regimes, and possibly even to terrorists. Nuclear deterrence plays at best a marginal role in curtailing this threat. Instead of emphasizing nuclear deterrence, we must work to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and technologies. We need to build strong export controls, better inspections and safeguards, tougher sanctions against violators and more targeted interdiction efforts.

Daadler closes his article demanding an open debate about the use of America nuclear arsenal. He seems to also indirectly demand candidates discuss the wisdom of having nuclear weapons:

When it comes to nuclear weapons, is the most presidential stance the one that views nuclear weapons as another munition to brandish? Or is it one that accepts the legitimacy of possessing these weapons only to prevent them from ever being used again?

This is a debate worth having. But that requires that we engage with the issues. Our presidents (and presidential candidates) must engage with these issues too, and not shy away from any of the specifics.

How America crafts its deterrent policy, whether its numbers of stock loads or newer warhead designs, will affect how and who may come to hold these weapons—whether other nation-states or non-state actors.

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