Op-Ed

Obama’s New Nuclear Policies: A Step in the Right Direction

Michael E. O’Hanlon

With the overlapping events of recent weeks on the nuclear front—the signing of the START Follow-On Treaty and the conclusion of the Nuclear Posture Review—the Obama administration has made a significant and positive mark in dealing with one of the greatest threats to the planet.

To say that it is significant, however, is not to say that it is historic. The administration needs to avoid overstating what it has accomplished. On the nuclear front, the signature feature of the new nuclear policies is their balance—caution and carefulness on the one hand, combined with meaningful but modest steps towards minimizing nuclear danger on the other.  There is more conservatism and incrementalism in these policies than some administration officials, anxious to trumpet their accomplishments in dramatic terms, will want to acknowledge. As for the effects of the nuclear policies on “resetting” U.S.-Russia relations, or increasing pressure on Iran and North Korea as they pursue nuclear weapons programs, the benefits will be mostly indirect.

But because it avoids overreaching in any direction, the new set of policies is in fact solid from all vantage points. It is a modest step. But it is also, unambiguously, a modest step forward, and that is a good thing.

Consider the main aspects of the treaty plus the posture review:

— The new limit on strategic deployed warheads, nominally 1,550 per country though a bit less restrictive when loopholes on bombers are factored in, represents about a 10 to 20 percent reduction relative to the Bush-Putin accord of 2002. That is a modest change, given the extremely destructive power that will remain in each side’s arsenals, but at least it puts us back on the path towards reductions and creates a more positive international ambiance for arms control and nonproliferation work as the nuclear safety summit meets in Washington in April and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference convenes in New York in May.

— The administraton’s aggregate approach to missile defense so far is reasonable and preserves U.S. options. Canceling the planned system for Poland and the Czech Republic, as Mr. Obama did last year, was a reasonable way to attempt to mitigate Russian worries (however misplaced they may have been) without depriving the United States and its allies of important military options (since the alternative missile defense architecture that Obama proposed is at least as good). The U.S. and Russian positions on missile defense in the START Follow-on Treaty reveal a tension between Washington and Moscow on the issue, but it is a tension they were able at least to paper over for now, while beginning dialogue about how to address the matter more fully in the future.

— The administration’s commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is unsurprising, and its view that no new nuclear warheads will likely be needed in the foreseeable future is technically and strategically compelling. Yet some limited options are preserved for future years and future presidents, in terms of ensuring the reliability of the U.S. arsenal.

— The effort to further marginalize the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in the country’s security policy was handled adroitly. Pushed too far, this policy could have spooked allies who still believe our arsenal is important to their broader security in a multitude of ways.  So it was good that President Obama did not adopt radical steps. But it was also good that he changed things somewhat. Previous U.S. policy, with its ambiguity about what nuclear weapons were for, did little to advance Obama’s interest in moving gradually towards the possibility of a nuclear-free world.  The new policy does not categorically limit the future purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons only to deterring nuclear use by others; it is not an absolute no-first-use policy.  Some arms controllers will be unhappy as a result.  But because we cannot be sure how dangerous future biological pathogens will be, for example, we cannot permanently preclude the relevance of nuclear deterrence to non-nuclear missions. Obama is right that today’s world and today’s threats do not require American nuclear deterrence for nonnuclear threats, or against nonnuclear countries. But he is also correct not to make too many assumptions about the future.

If there was something that I would have liked to see addressed more fully, it was the issue of excess warheads. Russia and the United States will continue to have thousands of warheads each outside the bounds of formal arms control. That was probably a necessary reality in light of Moscow’s reluctance to go as far as we would have liked on certain aspects of arms control.  Getting a reasonable treaty done fairly quickly, and reestablishing arms control momentum, was also a smart calculation given the upcoming nuclear summits as well as the ongoing nuclear impasses with Iran and North Korea.  But in addition to believing that those strategic warhead totals could have gone a bit lower, I would have liked to see at least pilot programs to start monitoring tactical and surplus warhead tallies. That could help set the stage for future tighter limits on warheads and fissile material stockpiles, not only in the United States and Russia but around the world. 

In addition, given budgetary constraints and the needs of our conventional military forces, I believe that future U.S. strategic force levels could be maintained somewhat more economically than now planned. More Trident submarines could be converted to conventional purposes; fewer Minuteman ICBMs might be kept on duty (with more warheads deployed per remaining missile, or with a bit more of the nuclear deterrent mission shifted to the bomber force). The United States has a very survivable nuclear force, and on top of that, U.S.-Russia nuclear war is not a serious contingency any longer, so we could afford additional reductions in the strategic nuclear launcher department.

But the sum total of the policies is still quite positive. And Obama was probably right not to push the domestic politics of the nuclear issue too far; deeper reductions or bolder steps might have elicited more political opposition to his nuclear policies at home. Obama still needs the Senate to ratify the START Follow-On Treaty, for example, and that will require him reminding Democrats as well as Republicans that he is being prudent in how he downsizes nuclear forces and missions. His emergent nuclear policy is meaningfully different from what he inherited, yet also a reasonable extrapolation of trends already underway in U.S. nuclear policy for two decades, and a pragmatic baby step toward the idea of the global elimination of nuclear weapons. It is a good day’s work in the nuclear domain for this administration.

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