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To What End Does America Have A Nuclear Policy?: Sixth Post in the Nuclear Policy Series

“The maximum possible deterrence may require a war winning capability, but much less force may nevertheless possess deterrent value. However, we must remember that the enemy has a very great incentive to ensure our destruction. That incentive must be countered in the only way possible, which is to guarantee strong retaliation. The automaticity of retaliation is taken too much for granted. Deterrence involves problems of choice among weapons, vehicles and also targets. Deterrent capabilities are also influenced considerably by the state of civil defense and of armaments limitation and control.”                                                                    Bernard Brodie,  Strategy in the Missile Age [1]

Cheryl Rofer of Whirledview recently proposed a “blog tank” on the question of American Nuclear Policy, a subject currently undergoing reexamination by the Bush administration under strong Congressional pressure to do so.  The answers have not come easily to the deep thinkers at the Department of Defense and the think tanks that inhabit the Beltway because, by and large, their strategic assumptions about how the world is supposed to work underwent profound shifts from 1991-2001. The ten year interregnum between the collapse of Communism and September 11 featured unprecedented economic globalization, information revolution and centrifugal decentralization that have rendered the massive Russian and American nuclear arsenals of the bipolar, Cold War, world not obsolete, but obscure.  What role do nuclear weapons serve in assuring America’s national security, vital interests or preservation of global peace and stability ? Against whom or what are these weapons to be directed?

It is important to note that American nuclear policy and warfighting doctrine during the Cold War were as much products of bureaucratic evolution within nation-states as they were of calm, theoretical, reflection by defense intellectuals or interstate diplomatic agreements like START, SALT, ABM and the NPT. Nagasaki was bombed almost on a political “automatic pilot” as a result of top secret decisions made during FDR’s tenure with the new president, Harry Truman being told that the city was a “military target” ( “Much like New York city was a military target” McGeorge Bundy was known to later quip). Even as Truman’s key adviser and later Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes (“Mr. Atomic Bomb”) was trying to use the bomb’s existence in a hamhanded way to maximize American diplomatic leverage, a privately worried Truman removed control of atomic bombs from the hands of the U.S. military and put them firmly under civilian and most importantly, presidential, authority. When General of the Army Douglas MacArthur insubordinately continued to agitate for the use of atomic bombs against Red China during the Korean War, Truman fired him. 

Dwight Eisenhower shared Truman’s misgivings about allowing an erosion of civilian authority over the military and he deliberately relied upon American dominance in atomic and hydrogen bombs and SAC to enunciate a doctrine of “massive retaliation” that helped keep Soviet armies contained while keeping the American Army small ( and cheap). The combination of increasing thermonuclear megatonnage, multiplying numbers of warheads and ICBM’s as an emerging delivery system resulted in a paradoxical situation of radical  “overkill” in America’s nuclear posture by 1960, an arsenal that could hardly be used in our defense without also threatening the existence of all life on earth. With “Massive Retaliation” having come to a dead end, from the Kennedy administration forward to the collapse of the USSR during the administration of George H.W. Bush, American presidents attempted to apply rational limitations to nuclear arms in conjunction with Soviet leaders and in partnership with key NATO allies. A retreat away from assured apocalypse and toward “selective options” and targeting enemy “command and control” and hopefully, human or even national survival.

The unanticipated consequence of the Superpower arms race was the end of interstate war between great powers who increasingly relied upon client states and by the 1970’s and 1980’s, non-state actors as proxies for armed conflict.  To a great extent, the unthinkability of a superpower nuclear exchange has accelerated the devolution toward anarchy in warfare by making the option of “total war” an increasingly remote one for statesmen and enhancing the incentives to acquire “plausible deniability” by using irregulars as cut-outs – irregulars who increasingly no longer require states as patrons for acts of terrorism or to wage insurgencies. As Martin van Creveld has written:

“Owing largely to nuclear proliferation, the armed conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century were, without a single exception, fought either between third and fourth rate states or by a first rate state against a third or fourth rate state”. [2]

In a large measure, the absence of great power warfare, nuclear proliferation and the granular devolution of warfare represent the strategic legacy that the Cold War has bequeathed to the 21st century and constitute major problems in crafting a new American nuclear policy. What to do then ?

  • As WWII resulted in approximately 60 million deaths, American national interests are served by a continued general suppression of great power warfare provided for my American and Russian nuclear preeminence (and the astronomical costs of attempting to field a high-tech military that can play on the same battlefield as the United States). That being said, there remains considerable room for nuclear arms reductions by both Russia and the United States without endangering the comparative advantage that inhibits third parties from engaging in a new arms race; these further reductions in nuclear arsenals should come only jointly, and in return for a dramatic  strengthening the Non-Proliferation regime to which non-nuclear states adhere. “Linkage” to other, unrelated but “incentivizing” issues should be considered to draw in the most likely would-be new nuclear powers.
  • A diplomatic “Come in from the Cold” option for *all* rogue states enmeshed with terrorism and WMD proliferation threats to follow the path of Libya, receiving diplomatic and economic normalization and security from “regime change” in return for transparently divesting themselves of threatening or injurious activities.
  • An international “quick reaction” agreement in place in case of a nuclear club member undergoing state failure and anarchy that imposes nuclear security obligations on all nuclear weapons powers and an intervention process until a new government can exercise responsibility obver the nuclear arsenal. Pakistan is the poster-boy candidate here but we should not oversetimate how quickly seeemingly secure states can disintegrate. We were all very lucky in 1991.
  • Clarification of American nuclear targeting doctrine regarding hostile states attempting to acquire nuclear arms or engage in “first-use” against American allies or sponsor non-state actors who use WMDs in terrorist attacks. We should be both credible and clear.
  • Conventional alternatives to nuclear weapons ( “bunker busters”, EMP bombs etc.) should be pursued.
  • Recognition that while no “near peer” nuclear threat toward the United States exists today, this cannot be an assumption for all time. How many of us, in 1985, imagined the USSR would no longer exist six years later ?

Making nuclear policy for the United States is hard but it is immeasurably easier in 2007 than it was in 1957. The world has changed for the better, not for the worse. Let’s keep it that way.

1. Brodie, Bernard  Strategy in the Missile Age. 1959  RAND Corporation 

2.  Creveld, Martin van  The Changing Face of War: The Lessons of Combat from the Marne to Iraq. 2006. Ballantine Books

3 Responses to “To What End Does America Have A Nuclear Policy?: Sixth Post in the Nuclear Policy Series”

  1. The Glittering Eye » Blog Archive » Zenpundit on Nuclear Weapons Policy Says:

    […] Mark Safranski has posted on nuclear weapons policy, adding extremely valuable historical perspective to the multi-blog discussion of nuclear weapons policy instigated by Cheryl Rofer as he traces the evolution of American nuclear weapons policy from its beginnings to the present. He concludes with a set of prescriptions that parallel my own pretty closely. I think that only one of them is controversial: A diplomatic “Come in from the Cold” option for *all* rogue states enmeshed with terrorism and WMD proliferation threats to follow the path of Libya, receiving diplomatic and economic normalization and security from “regime change” in return for transparently divesting themselves of threatening or injurious activities. […]

  2. deichmans Says:

    Zen,  Great post, and as always an insightful historical perspective!  I infer from your post that nuclear weapons policy should remain focused on deterring nation-state actors; how do non-state actors factor into this calculus?

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Shane,

    Good question. 

    Our  first move is to "shrink the habitat" where non-state actors can freely operate and also have access to nuclear technology.  While these groups can engage in terrorism easily and cheaply, acquiring or building a nuclear device would require state sponsorship or state failure. We need to close off those access points.

    Our second move move should involve sliding terrorists like al Qaida legally and diplomatically into the same category once reserved for pirates –  i.e. we try and hang them with few exceptions.

    Deterrence of small groups with apocalyptic mindsets ( Mahdists, Branch Davidians, Aum cultists etc.) may be well-nigh impossible and our only real options are pre-emptive elimination or pysychological de-escalation on a case by case basis.

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