- By Jon WolfsthalJon Wolfsthal is a globally recognized expert on nuclear weapons and nonproliferation policy. A nonresident fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he was President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He is the former deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He has served on site in North Korea, helped negotiate an arms control agreement with Russia, and served as Vice President Joe Biden’s nuclear security advisor from 2009 to 2012.
The Department of Defense has begun drafting the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Conducted by each American president since 1994, the NPR is an official document that guides American nuclear policy and management of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Past presidents have used NPRs to determine and explain publicly how many and what kinds of nuclear weapons the United States needs, and when they might be used. It is the script officials throughout the government can use to deter adversaries and reassure allies. As President Donald Trump continues to sow doubt among U.S. allies about his administraion’s dedication to their defense, advocates for new, smaller, more usable nuclear weapons will offer their ideas as a way to counteract this growing confidence gap. Yet not all problems have a nuclear solution, and there is no combination of nuclear policy, weapons, and statements that can undo the damage Trump is doing to both our allies and the global nonproliferation system.
Trump’s tweets and his recent visit to Europe have unsettled America’s closest allies, calling its reliability into question. Notoriously cautious German Chancellor Angela Merkel conveyed this sentiment, telling supporters at a rally on May 28 that “[t]he times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over.” This feeling throughout Europe also comes on the heels of Trump questioning whether the United States would live up to its commitments to defend South Korea. In April, the president rattled North Korea’s neighbor by suggesting that South Korea should pay for the missile defense system currently deployed by the United States.
In the four long months of his presidency thus far, Trump has reduced the perceived ability of American allies to rely on Washington for their defense. Nuclear deterrence and reassurance are as much about perception as reality, and America’s alliances have been the backbone of its security and the basis for the global system that has helped prevent the spread of nuclear weapons for decades. Recent news that the president personally removed references to NATO’s Article 5 for common defenses will only add to these concerns. Under this article, the United States projects a willingness to defend other countries, even with its own nuclear weapons, so they don’t go nuclear themselves. This has helped make Germany, Japan, South Korea, and others safer, and reduced the risks that would come with more countries owning nuclear weapons and the materials needed to make them. Generations of allies have asked whether America would risk Boston to save Berlin, or Seattle to protect Seoul. Until now, the majority of people in the United States and abroad have believed that the answer was yes.
Now, the Trump administration — what there is of it — is conducting its own review. However, Pentagon officials must produce the NPR in an environment where the commander-in-chief is actively undermining decades of effort to reassure U.S. allies. Hence, the first issue the NPR might be expected to address is how to counteract this growing credibility gap. The officials responsible for drafting the report — many of whom are lifelong and dedicated nuclear experts — may think that nuclear weapons are part of the answer. When you have a hammer, every problem can look like a nail. Yes, our allies are nervous about both Russia and China, and about global trends.
But our allies are not nervous because America’s nuclear arsenal is too small, or big, or old. They are increasingly nervous because the person who has the sole power to authorize the use of American nuclear weapons is behaving unpredictably and in a way that divides the interest of the United States from that of the rest of the free world. True, allies were growing nervous in the face of a destabilizing Russia and a rising China before Trump was elected, but the United States was able to effectively manage those concerns through a combination of leadership and sound alliance management. That is what alliances traditionally do. Today’s challenges overshadow those efforts and are mostly of Trump’s own making.
Yet given that we are unlikely to see a return to normalcy until we have a new occupant in the Oval Office, those officials tasked with managing our alliance relationships will be looking for anything that can help undo the damage enacted from the top. Within this process, advocates for newer, smaller, and more usable nuclear weapons will likely find a receptive audience. The argument that the United States needs to build new, less devastating nuclear weapons has been around for decades, and has grown louder over the past few years. Our enemies may believe, the argument goes, that the United States is deterred from using its very large, destructive nuclear weapons because of the collateral damage they can do. Today’s nuclear weapons are much larger and more destructive than the ones that were dropped on Japan in 1945. Therefore, if the United States develops and fields smaller weapons, such stated willingness to use nuclear weapons would deter American enemies and, therefore, reassure American allies. Forget the fact that these weapons would still be bigger than those that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands could be killed in a single nuclear strike.
There is, however, little, if any, real-world evidence that the size of the warheads in our nuclear arsenal deters our enemies. And it is clear that any confidence gap our allies have stems from the president, not the size of the nuclear arsenal he commands. The idea that we need new, smaller, more usable nuclear weapons is a theoretical argument that more belongs in an academic seminar than in a real-world policy review. Efforts in the past to develop ladders of nuclear escalation with more rungs or more usable nuclear options that would fill the deterrence and reassurance gap resulted in the United States possessing tens of thousands of nuclear weapons with no real security to show for it. Many of these weapons still await dismantlement, after reviews deemed them excessive long ago. Plans and concepts regarding limited nuclear exchanges were unsound and dangerous in the 1950s and 1960s. They are even less relevant to current challenges and should be rejected today. Any effort from the Pentagon to break with recent policy and seek funds to design a new generation of nuclear weapons would spark an ugly battle in Congress. The debate will inevitably turn into a referendum on reassurance and deterrence itself, making the very goal advocates for such weapons seek harder to achieve.
Instead of getting bogged down in theoretical arguments, the NPR has real, pressing issues to address. The ongoing nuclear program is growing out of control, and may explode beyond the initial $1 trillion cost estimate over the next 30 years. This in turn threatens its sustainability and other defense and budget priorities. The review also urgently needs to consider how to manage stability with Russia, a country now violating several arms control agreements and acting in a way that increases the risk of conflict and escalation. Lastly, the NPR must address the burgeoning nuclear competition with China in the face of our growing reliance on missile defenses and precise conventional capabilities.
None of these problems have magic nuclear solutions, and America can’t fix any of them with hardware. The main nuclear risks to the United States today include the possibility of a county actually using a nuclear weapon, given Russia is apparently convinced it can use a nuclear weapon in a conflict and not face a devastating response. Likewise, tensions on the Korean Peninsula could spiral out of control at any minute, with nuclear consequences unlike anything seen before. And the background risk of India and Pakistan ending up in a nuclear conflict, intentionally or by accident, is a constant challenge that the United States has a massive interest in preventing. How the NPR addresses these real risks matters. However, if the last few months are any guide, the United States is likely to get bogged down in policy disasters of its own making, and once again miss an opportunity to stabilize global affairs and secure itself and allies.
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