An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Fifty-Megaton Elephant in the Room

Why aren't America and China talking about their nukes?

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been in Beijing this week for a round of meetings with senior Chinese officials, including presumptive paramount leader Xi Jinping. One topic that will most likely not be on the Panetta-Xi agenda is nuclear weapons. Which is weird.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been in Beijing this week for a round of meetings with senior Chinese officials, including presumptive paramount leader Xi Jinping. One topic that will most likely not be on the Panetta-Xi agenda is nuclear weapons. Which is weird.

Oh sure, every now and again the topic makes it onto the agenda, such as in 2006, when Presidents George W. Bush and Hu Jintao agreed on the importance of nuclear dialogue, or in 2007, when the topic was placed on the agenda for the annual Defense Consultative Talks. But these instances are, by and large, the exception.

Anyone who has attended a nongovernmental U.S.-China dialogue on nuclear issues will recognize a familiar pattern. The Chinese usually note that until the United States joins China in promising not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons first, there isn’t much to say. The U.S. response is usually that such promises are worthless, and in any event, the Chinese are not transparent enough for us to believe their pledge. The Chinese response is to ask what sort of rocket scientist would be transparent when being threatened with nuclear weapons. Everyone breaks for tea, then has at it again. There is little reason for Panetta and Xi to waste everyone’s time re-enacting this particular scene.

Whether you like the phrase "no first use" or not, the Chinese have a point about starting this discussion without nuclear threats.

If you know one thing about nuclear weapons, it is probably the eminently sensible moral from the movie WarGames: Regarding thermonuclear war, "the only winning move is not to play." Well, that’s Hollywood. As recently declassified documents on the Carter administration’s nuclear strategy make clear, the illusion of the winning move has been a reliable part of U.S. thinking about nuclear weapons. As long as the United States holds out the prospect of fighting and winning a nuclear war against China, the dialogue is going nowhere.

There are some voices suggesting that the administration should find a way to make clear to Beijing that China’s small stockpile of a few hundred nuclear weapons is plenty and that we aren’t likely to start any nuclear wars, at least not unless we really have to. Last month, the secretary of state’s International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) began circulating draft copies of a report, "Maintaining U.S.-China Strategic Stability," that recommended "mutual nuclear vulnerability should be considered as a fact of life for both sides."

If you do not closely follow the arcana of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, this statement might seem blindingly obvious. After all, China holds some $1.2 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities. Looking at the ways in which the United States and China are economically interdependent, it might be easier to count the ways in which we are not mutually vulnerable. But just four years ago, a very different ISAB report was leaked to the Washington Times. That report, drafted under Paul Wolfowitz’s name, advised that "Washington should also make clear that it will not accept a mutual vulnerability relationship with China" — before making a series of bizarre assertions about Chinese foreign policy right out of The Manchurian Candidate.

There remains a school of thought, popular among those that might populate a Romney administration, that the United States should maintain at least the threat of nuclear annihilation to keep the Chinese in line. American policymakers remain divided over a question that can be put this way: Is China a little Russia to be deterred or a big North Korea to be defended against?

Now, being churlish, I often insist that China is an inscrutable France. People seldom laugh. Perhaps the joke isn’t funny. (True story: The only place that line got a laugh was actually in France.) Or perhaps I underestimate the seriousness of this business of stuffing China into the intellectual boxes we’ve created for Russia and North Korea — as though those policies have turned out so well.

This debate was not settled in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, despite its sensible observation that "maintaining strategic stability in the U.S.-China relationship is as important to this Administration as maintaining strategic stability with other major powers." Although that would seem to cement China’s status as a "little Russia," a close reading — the sort of close reading that gets done in Zhongnanhai — reveals reasons for caution. The NPR is actually quoting a previous document: the 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review. Barack Obama’s administration could not agree to language on China, defaulting to a vague reference to "strategic stability" that raises more questions than it answers. More expansive language on the subject of the U.S.-China nuclear relationship was left on the cutting-room floor, victim to a persistent divide within the U.S. government.

Although the "little Russia" quip implies the United States accepted mutual vulnerability with Russia, the reality throughout the Cold War to the present day is more complex and contested. In the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we find an argument that there would be no winner in a nuclear war. With the advent of even more powerful thermonuclear weapons, it became common to imagine that following a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the living would envy the dead.

But there was another side to the debate, led forcefully by Herman Kahn and his cronies at the Hudson Institute, based on the notion of "victory" in a nuclear war. The basic idea enjoyed the full cinematic treatment in my favorite scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove — the one where Gen. Buck Turgidson presses the president to follow the unauthorized attack with a much larger effort to catch the Russians "with their pants down."

Turgidson: Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, postwar environments: one where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got a 150 million people killed.

President: You’re talking about mass murder, general, not war.

Turgidson: Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say, no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.

The amazing thing about this comedic dialogue, as well as much of the film, is that it comprises actual quotes attributable to Kahn and other Cold War strategists. The phrase "two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, postwar environments" for example, is lifted almost verbatim from a chart on page 20 of Kahn’s tome On Thermonuclear War. And Turgidson’s reference to casualties takes surprisingly few liberties with Kahn’s argument that "If, on the contrary, by spending a few billion dollars, or by being more competent or lucky, we can cut the number of dead from 40 to 20 million, we have done something vastly worth doing!"

Some policymakers sought to impose some sort of limitations on the nuclear arms race, which seemed to be spiraling out of control by the early 1960s. In 1963, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara championed a thought experiment to size U.S. nuclear forces. Imagine the United States has a force of 1-megaton nuclear bombs that we begin dropping on the Soviet Union, starting with Moscow. (Of course the United States did not have a force of uniform 1-megaton bombs, nor do we target cities. This was a thought experiment.) McNamara’s Whiz Kids observed that the damage to the Soviet Union started to level off around the 400th bomb. McNamara didn’t know whether 400 1-megaton bombs would deter another Joseph Stalin, but it was damn clear that if 400 didn’t do the trick, flattening Perm with number 401 was a fool’s errand.

The resulting policy was called "assured destruction" — the idea that once the United States had a survivable force capable of about 400 equivalent megatons that could kill much of the Soviet Union’s population and destroy its industry, there wasn’t much point in making the rubble bounce. Say what you will about the tenets of assured destruction — at least it was a ceiling.

Kahn and others did not like "assured destruction" because it did not hold out the possibility of prevailing in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, something they believed was possible with bomb shelters, missile defenses, and hard hearts. (Decades later one proponent of victory summarized the argument by saying, "If there are enough shovels to go around, everyone will make it.") They went after assured destruction.

Donald Brennan, Kahn’s colleague at the Hudson Institute, famously added the word "mutual" to "assured destruction," creating the acronym MAD, as though it were American policy to accept destruction in a nuclear war. Instead, Brennan and others urged the United States to fight and win a nuclear war. (Liberals tried to fight back by calling Brennan’s approach "nuclear utilization target selection," or NUTS, but the left seemed to have permanently misplaced its funny bone until Jon Stewart found it a few years ago.) MAD lost some of its original bite by entering into mainstream discourse — apparently nuclear strategy is so bizarre that parody can be mistaken for policy. Brennan then picked up the pejorative phrase coined by Steuart Pittman, who called the policy "assured vulnerability" instead of assured destruction. After all, who is for vulnerability?

This debate proceeded through the Cold War with surprisingly little modification. Over time, hawks did subtly improve the argument by asserting — on the basis of no evidence at all, I might add — that the Soviet Union planned to fight and win a nuclear war, leaving the United States with no choice but to jump off the same bridge. It is this contested history that explains the current battle over whether to admit what many people believe is obvious: The United States and China are mutually vulnerable.

By the 1990s, the phrases "mutual assured destruction" and "assured vulnerability" had merged into the compound calumny "mutual vulnerability." In a way, the debate within hawkish circles had become entirely self-referential and disconnected from the world around it. George Orwell would have had something witty to say about the transition from "assured destruction" to "mutual vulnerability" — especially the pejorative use of vulnerability to perpetuate a state of affairs in which billions of people remained indefinitely vulnerable to the danger from nuclear weapons.

The language of this debate is revealing. The proponents of assured destruction are willing to accept the pejorative phrase "mutual vulnerability" for the purposes of debate. It illustrates the simple strength of their argument: No matter how bad you make it sound, it just isn’t something one gets to choose. "Mutual vulnerability is a fact of life," wrote a Council on Foreign Relations task force, chaired by Bill Perry and Brent Scowcroft, "to be managed with strategic stability." It sucks, but what can you do?

We could plan to destroy all of China’s small number of nuclear-armed missiles in a first strike, but China can always build more until that’s no longer plausible. Over time, China has deployed mobile ballistic missiles that can be put to sea and into the field. China is also developing capabilities to target U.S. space capabilities and sophisticated countermeasures to penetrate missile defenses. American officials express alarm about the growth of Chinese defense spending, but it has held constant between 1 to 2 percent of China’s GDP. The United States, by contrast, spends about 4 percent of its GDP on defense. In other words, China could sustain much larger defense expenditures. Heck, it could run a very creditable arms race using those $1.2 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities.

The requirements for preserving China’s deterrent are not high. Although nuclear weapons aficionados like Kahn throw around losses in the tens of millions of people like the card game Nuclear WarAnybody have change for a 100 million people? real-life politicians are far more likely to be sensitive to the destructive power of nuclear weapons. As McGeorge Bundy noted, "Even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable." Even after all the screaming about China’s modernization of its nuclear forces, China has fewer than 50 nuclear weapons that can reach the United States. Judging by the near panic in the Washington Free Beacon every time China tests a missile, 50 is plenty.

Those who assert that there is some way to simply build our way out of vulnerability with China are in deep denial, about both technical and political realities.

This denial comes at no small cost to U.S.-China relations. Every administration in my professional lifetime — Clinton, Bush, and now Obama — has made it a priority to engage China on strategic stability. Each has failed largely because the United States gives the same answer when the Chinese ask whether we plan to coerce China with nuclear weapons: crickets. The result is a stunted dialogue on nuclear weapons. The Obama administration, for example, is justifiably proud that China is leading a multilateral working group to draft a glossary of key nuclear terms. This is a big step, one that builds on important work by the National Academies and its Chinese counterpart, but the symbolism couldn’t be clearer. Forget dialogue; we’re still arguing about vocabulary, with the French holding our hands.

I don’t object to having the same stale conversation over and over again. After all, it means foundations keep paying for me to travel to China — and I love Chinese food. But the pathologies that undermine nongovernmental dialogues plague official discussions as well and could, in a crisis, prove quite dangerous. I think it is highly unlikely that a U.S. or Chinese president would ever willingly choose to fight a nuclear war. But either might very well blunder into one, through misunderstandings based on stereotypes and suspicions. Chinese textbooks prepared for missile officers talk about sending signals to the United States to stop what they perceive as coercion in crisis by placing forces on alert or "lowering the nuclear threshold." Whether an American president would understand the signal seems pretty iffy to me. The United States and China have experienced a number of crises over the years, including the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the 2001 midair collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft, and the March 2009 incident at sea involving five Chinese vessels and the USNS Impeccable. This record is hardly encouraging.

Our refusal to recognize that vulnerability is simply a fact of life essentially blocks a productive dialogue with Chinese leaders. Among the many reasons it would behoove us to reassure Beijing that we don’t intend to use our nuclear weapons to coerce or humiliate them is that we don’t intend to use our nuclear weapons to coerce or humiliate them. It isn’t in our interest for them to be confused about that. If only we could find the right words.

Maybe Hollywood was on to something. The United States faced the same problem with Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, which sought a similar reassurance. President Ronald Reagan — no stranger to Tinseltown himself — had a phrase he liked that evoked the sensibility of WarGames: "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Reagan made the statement several times in his presidency, ultimately inserting it into a 1988 joint communiqué with Gorbachev. I don’t know whether this is a better phrase than "mutual vulnerability is a fact of life" or whether either phrase would have the desired effect in Beijing. But the notion that Leon Panetta and Xi Jinping can’t reasonably have a conversation about our nuclear arsenals is bizarre and unsettling. They ought to be able to say something.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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