Proliferation Press

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

The Costs of Love: Building Off PONI’s Response to ‘Learning to Love the Bomb’

Posted by K.E. White on March 24, 2009

K.E. White builds on PONI’s recent discussion of Adam B. Lowther’s recent editorial ‘Learning to Love The Bomb’. Here he suggests there is a middle ground between the two extremes Lowther presents as America’s choices on nuclear policy: dominance or abolition. Instead, looking to Michael Krepon’s recent book ‘Better Safe Than Sorry,’ White contends there is a middle ground between nuclear dominance and abolition: one where nuclear weapon states cooperative to minimize the dangers of nuclear accidents and exchanges, and work assiduously against nuclear proliferation.

PONI recently explored Adam Lowther’s article ‘Learning to Love the Bomb,’ where Lowther argued against unilateral cuts to America’s nuclear arsenal. While PONI problematized Lowther’s arguments against nuclear abolition, but does get to the central weakness of Lowther’s editorial. Lowther insists on a bifurcated approach to America’s nuclear policy: either America seeks nuclear dominance or weak-kneed nuclear abolition. But there is a middle ground between these choices, one that recognizes the incomplete security afforded by nuclear weapons and the risk that America nuclear dominance may very well set off a new era of nuclear proliferation.

In carving out this middle ground, I am heavily indebted to a book I recently completed—Michael Krepon’s recent book, ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’. There Krepon explores nuclear weapon history, the history of arms-controls and lays out a framework of Cooperative Threat Reduction to minimize nuclear dangers.

Lowther’s argument will be reviewed over three categories: the role played by nuclear weapons over the last 60+ years, the current state of America’s nuclear arsenal and, finally, contrasting the nuclear futures of dominance vs. cooperative threat reduction.

i.                    Nuclear History 

Lowther underplays the danger of accidents involving nuclear weapons. His ‘proof’ that nuclear weapons aren’t dangerous is that no nuclear or radiological device has been set-off since the nuclear detonations closing out WWII. 

a.        Russia and America did have a very close call: the Cuban Missile crisis. Most people would consider going back to that era unacceptable. Also America has had a history of nuclear accidents: a warhead crashing into the sea and another falling in the continental United States. All this is to say, that America and Russia were fortunate to get through the Cold War without a nuclear exchange or accidental detonation. Such a result was not predetermined, and reflected a period of decades through which the United States and the Soviet Union matured their diplomatic relations–and had good luck. 

b.       Today nine countries possess nuclear weapons. As this number increases, so too would the risk of accidental detonation or nuclear exchange. The United States and the Soviet Union were ‘ideal’ nuclear competitors: both spent huge sums of money producing and protecting their nuclear arsenal, and were internally stable. Can one say this about North Korea or Iran? 

c.        Lowther presents an inverted measure of nuclear success. The absence of a single nuclear detonation or accident is ‘proof’ of nuclear stability. But he does not concede the inverse: that a single successful detonation or nuclear accident is, to many, an unacceptable occurrence. Never having a nuclear detonation is not success; reducing that possibility in the present and future is success. Lowther simply proves America’s nuclear approach has been sufficient, not ideal or even the best approach towards international security. 

ii.                    America’s Nuclear Arsenal Today 

a.        Lowther gives credit to past arms control agreements and American nuclear policy without showing that the world has changed. Yes, America has cut its nuclear arsenal. But at the same time decisions over redesigning nuclear warheads or investigating nuclear-tipped bunker-buster bombs would signal a growing American nuclear policy, not reducing.

b.       While America does not fly 24-7 nuclear missions, it still holds nuclear-weapons on hair-trigger alert. In 15 minutes America—and Russia—could launch thousands of nuclear weapons. Is this really required for American or Russian security?

c.        America’s nuclear decisions impact the calculus of other nation’s nuclear policies. If America modernizes or grows its arsenal, other nations (nuclear and non-nuclear) would react. At the very least, America failing to limit its nuclear-weapons umbrella undercuts the very diplomatic support needed to reverse the Iranian nuclear program.

iii.                 The Problems With Nuclear Dominance

Lowther pushes America policymakers to maximize any advantage it has over nuclear weapons, aka pursue nuclear dominance. This logic suggests that America can only find security in arming itself. Yet one may suggest that the utility of nuclear weapons—at least for the world’s current nuclear powers—are limited. No nation can afford nuclear war. And at the same time conventional weapons have the ability to decapitate the regime of a nation in a single precision strike.  It seems our competition with China and Russia is not really well-served by nuclear weapons stockpiles, but rather in avoiding these costly decisions and working together to limit nuclear proliferation to other nations. 

History has show that the nuclear dimension to nation-state relations is a key component to overall relations between nuclear states.  When nations use a ‘go it alone’ approach on nuclear weapons, not only do relations with other nations suffer—it tends to cause ‘nuclear’ reactions that undercut the goal of limiting nuclear proliferation. For example, recent reports that the Obama administration would consider pulling back on a missile shield in Eastern Europe will return for Russian assistance with the Iranian nuclear program. This diplomatic development shows 1) nuclear dominance does not stop nuclear proliferation and 2) that nuclear cooperation can advance international security far better than nuclear weapons. 

Lowther presents America’s nuclear weapons policy in a vaccum. In so doing, Lowther refuses to admit the complicated and crosscrossing issues involved America’s nuclear deterrent. A hypothetical: If the United States modernizes its nuclear arsenal, its likely not only that China and Russia will follow–but that relations will be strained. This, as a result, then impacts others dimensions of our nuclear policy: whether that clamping down dangerous materials, insisting on nuclear inspections or stopping nations from developing nuclear weapons.

As the world’s largest holder of nuclear weapons predominant nuclear power*, America’s nuclear choices  heavily shapes the nuclear dimension of our international system.


Lowther constructs a straw-man against a rational approach to nuclear weapons in America. The United States can conclude agreements that minimize the danger of nuclear terrorism, a  nuclear weapons exchange or nuclear accidents.

Such a approach does not sacrifice America’s nuclear deterrent; such an approach, in fact, fosters the cooperation needed to 1) limit nuclear weapons proliferation and 2) keep nuclear materials out of terrorist hands.

Again, there is a middle-ground to Lowther’s nuclear dominance and sudden nuclear abolition: cooperative nuclear policy between nuclear nations. Nuclear proliferation is the greatest threat to global security. Defending a bloated nuclear arsenal and alienating possible counter-proliferation partners does nothing to minimize that threat. 

*Correction: Russia, not the United States, holds the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. But America clearly enjoys a predominant nuclear deterrent. From the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review: “Russia maintains the most formidable nuclear forces, aside from the United States, and substantial, if less impressive, conventional capabilities. There now are, however, no ideological sources of conflict with Moscow, as there were during the Cold War. The United States seeks a more cooperative relationship with Russia and a move away from the balance-of-terror policy framework, which by definition is an expression of mutual distrust and hostility. As a. result, a [nuclear strike] contingency involving Russia, while plausible, is not expected.” (p. 17) 

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