The release of the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) begins several weeks of U.S.-led arms control and nuclear weapons-related diplomacy.
The multi-tentacled diplomatic enterprise is the immediate context for understanding the newly released document. The NPR is meant to frame the signing of a new U.S.-Russia arms-reduction treaty and a subsequent arms summit (scheduled for next week) as transformational steps toward a new global arms control regimen.
But reading the NPR, and scrutinizing its abundant hedges, reveals that the Obama administration's nuclear arms policy isn't so different from that of the Bush administration.
Since the Manhattan Project, every administration has conducted nuclear policy reviews of some type, whether formal or informal. At the operational level, U.S. intelligence, military and security agencies should be conducting posture assessments on a minute-by-minute basis. The reason is obvious: Nukes are dangerous. Their terrible existence, however, ensured a cold peace on Europe's central front during the Cold War, which is a historical achievement far superior to arms control Edsels like the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) or medieval attempts to ban or discourage use of the crossbow.
Obama's NPR claims to reduce the possibility of nuclear war by narrowing what Cold Warriors called "the gray zone of escalation" created by "flexible response." In operational terms, these phrases meant several things, but the strategic goal was to riddle a bad actor's mind with doubt as to when and where the U.S. would use nuclear weapons.
This worked during the Cold War -- thank goodness. The geopolitical world has changed, but human psychology has not. The NPR, in a squishy fashion, recognizes this. The NPR touts America's new assurance that it will only use nukes to counter a nuclear attack, but then it hedges, saying this Hope and Change assurance could receive an "adjustment" after a biological attack. So get it straight, Bad Actors. America will only use nukes if a bad actor uses nukes, unless we adjust our assurance.
Kim Jong-Il won't see this as change.
U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals remain large, so further cuts make sense. Refusing to modernize weapons, however, does not, and the NPR supports "life extension" for current nukes. That's good. Obama, however, refuses to build new weapons.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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