Our Nuclear Options


Two interesting items of U.S. nuclear weapons policy worth discussing today. The first is a CAP report from our own Andrew Grotto and Ploughshares’ Joe Cirincione on “Orienting the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review”. The Nuclear Review process has been done twice since the end of the Cold War, and never well. It was done poorly during the George W. Bush administration because, basically, Bush is a shitty president who puts forward dumb policy. And it was done poorly during the Clinton administration because the president’s relationship with the defense establishment was in a downward spiral of gays in the military and Somalia, which wound up producing a review that avoided bold thinking. Grotto and Cirincione offer recommendations to make sure we do a better job this time around, including bullet points:

* Do not politicize nuclear weapons doctrine.
* Conduct the review as a strategy-driven exercise guided by a vision for nuclear weapons policy elaborated by the president.
* Consult and engage the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
* Consult and engage Congress.
* Appoint experienced professionals to carry out the vision.
* Ensure that the review is interagency.
* Consult and engage key allies and partners.
* Develop a communications plan.


The backdrop and strategic context for thinking about this is the emergence of something of a bipartisan consensus that the United States ought to recommit itself to our Non-Proliferation Treaty obligation to work in good-faith toward global nuclear disarmament. This is an objective Barack Obama has specifically embraced, and that has substantial elite support from Democrats and Republicans alike. Obviously, though, it’s not well-liked by elements of the nuke-industrial complex that stand to lose money and/or bureaucratic authority if it happens. A well-run Nuclear Posture Review could be integral to smoothing these issues out and accomplishing what needs to be accomplished.

Along these lines, David Shorr lays out his vision for how to move the world in the direction of zero:

In rapid-fire fashion, then, here’s what I think would be the best policy approach for the Obama administration and beyond, taking the need to work with Iran and North Korea and abandon plans for new warheads as givens. The first major step toward the disarmament required of us under the NPT — and the most convincing way to earn back our international credibility — is an agreement with Russia for deeper bilateral reductions to 1,000 warheads. The only way to make such an agreement truly impressive is to have such a numerical ceiling for total warheads, not just deployed warheads. It would make nuclear disarmament easier if we clarify that the United States would only use nuclear weapons in retaliation for a nuclear attack on us or our allies. The next agreement, with a ceiling in the low hundreds, would also include China, France, and the UK. And the subsequent treaty, going down to the dozens (a truly minimal deterrent) would apply to all nuclear powers. There are indeed many complexities associated with reducing to zero (Daalder and Lodal delve more deeply into them), but I’m confident at least that those issues would look differently and clearer once we have reached minimum deterrent levels.

I think there’s a case to be made that our first step in terms of arsenal reduction should just be done unilaterally. We’re talking about genuinely useless excess nuclear capacity. Holding out for bilateral reductions might wind up leaving this element hostage to the vagaries of Russian demands on NATO or possibly the nationalism-drunk Russian military establishment just refusing to negotiate. On the other side, going unilaterally would potentially give up the chance to achieve reductions in the Russian arsenal. Ultimately, the question of which way is a better way to proceed seems to me to be an empirical issue that you’d want to resolve with diplomatic feelers rather than just try to guess from your armchair.