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Strengthen nuclear deterrence

The US should form a defensive coalition with other nuclear states

Despite the Bush-Putin nuclear-weapons reduction agreement, nuclear weapons may be making a comeback. Not long ago they were seen as unusable. Ronald Reagan sought to eliminate them or at least make them "impotent and obsolete." Now the Nuclear Posture Review may give them a new life.

Some analysts believe the administration is considering support for the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against rogue states. Congress is debating whether to provide funds for developing new low-yield nuclear weapons. The idea is to develop a new weapon that could penetrate deep into the earth and destroy underground bunkers that protect rogue-state leadership or weapons of mass destruction.

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The White House has emphasized that deterrence remains the objective of US nuclear forces. This makes sense. A doctrine of preemptive first use would open a door that for very good reasons has been closed since 1945. During the cold war, there was a consensus in the West that nuclear weapons might have to be used first if NATO were under attack by a massive Warsaw Pact invasion. But even in that case, nuclear weapons came to be seen as weapons of last resort. To think of them as weapons of first resort raises fundamental questions.

First, it is not a credible option. President Eisenhower could have destroyed the nascent Soviet nuclear capability, but he favored containment. History proved him right.

Would a US president be willing to use a nuclear weapon, even a very low-yield one, for the first time since World War II? Probably, if weapons of mass destruction already had been used. Perhaps, if they were about to be used beyond the shadow of a doubt. But solid evidence would be hard to come by. Even then, smart conventional bombs might be a smarter choice.

Second, lowering the nuclear threshold would encourage nuclear proliferation by legitimizing their use. The taboo against using nuclear weapons has underlined the fact that these are civilization-destroying machines. The United States, of all countries, should not want to make their use more likely.

US superiority in high-accuracy weapons and target-acquisition technology means that America is less in need of nuclear weapons than any potential adversary the nation faces. The US should prefer to fight a 21st-century "conventional" war rather than a 20th-century nuclear war. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stressed that the goal should be to reduce dependence on nuclear weapons.

Third, a unilateral nuclear policy, symbolized by a preemptive doctrine, would be the straw that broke the camel's back among America's key alliances. US international partners already are worried about unilateral behavior. The US would find it harder to line up support for the fight against terror. US nuclear weapons, instead of being a shelter for friendly countries, would impel them toward independent solutions.

Deterrence against erratic regimes remains a serious, even existential question. But deterrence cannot be considered totally within the bounds of military constructs. Political and psychological dimensions must be added to US military might.

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All governments now have a practical reason for opposing weapons of mass destruction: transnational terrorism.

The time may be ripe for America to join other nuclear weapons states in a joint policy: to refrain from use of any weapon of mass destruction unless another state or terrorist network used such a weapon first or is unambiguously about to do so. The form of retaliation against use of chemical or biological weapons would not necessarily be in kind. Nuclear weapons might be unleashed against a state that used biological weapons first.

This bold step would make the permanent members of the UN Security Council – each a nuclear power – de facto partners in acting together against any entity that thought the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons would give it some advantage. It would be a powerful coalition that strengthens deterrence. If a low-yield weapon were to be built, it would be placed in the proper context of enhancing deterrence, not threatening preemption.

This would be a departure from traditional thinking. But with the US starting to treat nuclear weapons like conventional ones, it would recognize the reality that fears of a US strategy of nuclear preemption would erode the support the US needs to fight terror – and would encourage an increasingly nuclear-armed world.

• Hans Binnendijk is Roosevelt Professor of National Security Policy at the National Defense University and was senior director at the National Security Council for Defense and Arms Control. James Goodby was special representative of the president for Nuclear Security and Dismantlement during the Clinton administration. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the National Defense University or the US government.