Skip to main content

Nuclear Exchange

The Senate engaged in a new round of debate over nuclear weapons last week, as Democrats tried to strip funding for research on new tactical nuclear bombs. Republicans portrayed the new weapons as crucial to the war on terror, promising that the bombs would incinerate enemy stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and leave no hostile dictator or terrorist beyond reach. Democrats countered that the new bombs would spark a global arms race and kill untold numbers of civilians if they were ever used. Both sides seemed to agree on only one thing: The fate of America’s war on terror and proliferation might hinge on their decision. As it happens, that was also the one point on which they were both wrong.

The Democrats were right to question Republican characterizations of new nuclear weapons as some sort of counter-proliferation panacea. There is very little that new nuclear bombs could do that advanced non-nuclear weapons could not, making money spent on the new nuclear weapons a largely wasted investment. (That’s not to suggest that new non-nuclear weapons would solve all our proliferation problems—any bomb used to target WMD or enemy leaders needs to be targeted using precise intelligence, which we rarely have.) Democrats were also right to correct the misimpression, being peddled by some of the weapons’ supporters, that the new weapons might be designed to release low levels of radioactivity.

Likewise, Democrats correctly challenged the Republican claim that developing new nuclear weapons would have no negative impact on our ability to combat proliferation. Proliferant states often point to America’s nuclear weapons as reason why they should be allowed to develop their own. While such arguments may sway few in the United States, they unfortunately carry weight in some important foreign capitals. This, in turn, can make it more difficult for the United States to assemble counter-proliferation coalitions. Given the marginal military utility of new nuclear weapons, that should be reason enough to forgo them.

But most Democrats went further, suggesting that new nuclear weapons would provoke a nuclear arms race, and Republicans were right to chide them for it. Underlying the Democrats’ position was a woefully outdated understanding of why nuclear proliferation happens—that is, the idea that other nations seek nuclear weapons because America pursues its own. (In a typical comment, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy remarked during the floor debate, “If we develop a small nuclear weapon, what are we going to find? The corresponding action by countries around the world—the Iranians and the North Koreans continuing their progress in developing their own nuclear weapons system.”) That judgment might have been right during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States sought to match each other tit-for-tat. But the new proliferation challenges, coming from the Middle East and Northeast Asia, are largely rooted in regional security dynamics rather than America’s nuclear posture per se. To the extent that they’re fueled by fear of American power, it’s America’s conventional military strength, not its nuclear arsenal, that principally matters.

How do we know this? For starters, the world’s two greatest proliferation threats, Iran and North Korea, began pursuing covert uranium enrichment programs during the Clinton administration, long before the Bush administration announced its policy on new nuclear weapons. And to the extent that these countries have accelerated their nuclear programs in the last two years, it’s been in response to the threat of preemptive American military action—using conventional, not nuclear, arms. North Korea has demanded a nonaggression pact from America and its allies, not a pledge to refrain from using nuclear weapons. Iranian leaders harbor similar worries, having recently seen up close what the United States military can do with its non-nuclear force.

Right now, neither building new nuclear weapons nor reversing course on their development will do much to solve our most pressing proliferation problems. America needs alternatives to the president’s failing anti-proliferation policies, and Congress is doing the nation a disservice by focusing excessively on, at best, a marginal part of the answer. Suggesting that proliferation can be stopped simply by building better bombs or by restraining our own nuclear activities distracts from finding real solutions—and lets the president off the hook for a far broader failure.


Get daily updates from Brookings