Proliferation Press

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

Fred Kaplan’s Nuclear Poppycock

Posted by K.E. White on March 3, 2010

Slate’s Fred Kaplan gives his take on Obama’s nuclear policy review.  His read:  it’s smart for U.S. nuclear policy to get out of the cold-war era of of targeting thousands of missiles. The bad news?  Cutting U.S. nuclear weapons doesn’t get us any closer to nuclear abolition.

Kaplan sums this up in the article’s closing paragraphs:

The idea behind no-first-use is to “delegitimize” nuclear weapons—to announce to the world that the foremost nuclear power, the only nation that has ever dropped A-bombs in anger, has concluded that these things have no military utility, no place in wars of the present or the future.

The problem is that history reveals they do have value, whatever we might belatedly say—not necessarily in their actual use but merely in their possession. They elevate one’s standing in a region (see Pakistan); they deter others from attacking (see China in the mid-1960s or North Korea now); they can be brandished as a way of keeping others from responding to lower level forms of aggression. (If Saddam Hussein had built some nukes before invading Kuwait in 1990, it’s doubtful that George H.W. Bush and James Baker could have amassed a large coalition to push him back.)

Which leads to the fourth point: No matter what Washington says, or how deeply the United States or Russia or the other established nuclear powers cut their own nuclear arsenals, it will probably have minimal impact on other countries’ decisions to go, or not to go, nuclear themselves. Their own interests will determine those decisions. In fact, one could argue that a U.S. pullback of this sort may make some technologically advanced countries—which have relied on America’s “nuclear umbrella” for their security—to take the leap and build their own bombs.

The true value of this Nuclear Posture Review depends, in part, on how President Obama views—and presents—its purpose. If he sees it as a way to build institutional support for drastic arms cuts, it could be very valuable indeed. If he sees it as a first step toward his grander goal of wiping nuclear weapons off the face of the earth, he’s going to be sorely disappointed.

Kaplan’s article, while offering strong arguments, needs to address two weak-points.  Kaplan avoids delving into what constitutes “national interest”.  While it is a true that a country will always desire self-protection, what that means depends on what that nation perceives to be necessary.  Also, nations always will make trade-offs:  choosing strategies that get their desired ends for the least cost.

Second, Kaplan doesn’t present a full view of the Obama administration’s nuclear strategy.   His article suggests that nuclear doves have dreamed up the following equation: a new START treaty + a nuclear posture review making deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal = the yellow brick road of nuclear abolition.

That’s poppycock.

But these steps, in conjunction with removing nuclear weapons from Europe, holding a nuclear summit in April and pushing a strong disarmament strategy at next summer’s NPT conference can further diplomatically isolate nuclear aspirants.  Will this stop would-be proliferators for all time?  No.  Could it help get current nuclear powers to pursue prudent nuclear policies, limit the amount of weapons, and foster more effective means of counter-proliferation in regards to other nations and, most importantly, rogue nations?  Yes.

Admittedly, nations may be attracted to nuclear weapons.  But I suspect that nations far more prefer keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of fragile regimes (read: Pakistan and Iran), let alone non-state actors.

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