What to Think of the Nuclear Posture Review (Plus, How to Navigate the Next Six Weeks of Nuclear Diplomacy)

These next few weeks are a marathon of activity in nuclear security and non-proliferation.  The new American Nuclear Posture Review dropped today, which for the first time specifically renounced the development of new nuclear weapons and as their use as a deterrent against chemical and biological attacks (though there were broad exceptions carved out for states like North Korea and Iran).  In an email to UN Dispatch, Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund calls the document a “big, positive step forward.” He writes: “It could go further, faster, but it is the best we can hope for under the circumstances.  It is a solid, pragmatic document that strives to be transformational.  It is transformation in two aspects:  It re-orients the US nuclear forces away from Cold War strategies and towards the 21st Century threats.  It orients US policy towards dramatically fewer weapons and greatly reduced roles.  It is a transitional document, from 1940s weapons and Cold War strategies, towards the elimination of the one weapon that can destroy our nation.”

Cirincione continues:

The Nuclear Posture Review will move this country down a rational, common sense path to reduce and eventually eliminate the threat from nuclear weapons.  It calls for the further reduction of global nuclear stockpiles by putting all types of nuclear warheads–deployed and nondeployed, strategic and tactical– on the negotiating table in the months and years ahead.

First, the Obama and his Administration have narrowed the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons to reflect the post 9-11 security environment by prioritizing the prevention of nuclear terrorism, a first in the NPR. 

The NPR also reflects the general wisdom of the foreign policy establishment that the U.S. does not need to maintain an inordinate stockpile of nuclear weapons.  It can safely reduce numbers, while still protecting the United States and its allies.

One of the major changes is the declaratory policy that states that the fundamental purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is deterrence of nuclear use by others.  This is a vast improvement over the last NPR and a logical decision.  No nation wields a conventional, chemical or biological force that the United States cannot counter with its overwhelmingly superior conventional forces.

The NPR also clarifies and updates U.S. pledges of non-use toward nonnuclear weapon states in good standing with their nonproliferation obligations. 

In a major victory for all those opposed to expanding nuclear arsenals, the NPR also rules out the pursuit of new nuclear weapons, which independent scientists have deemed unnecessary to maintain the effectiveness of the remaining arsenal, or new nuclear weapons capabilities.

While I believe that the NPR could have gone further in declaring that the sole use of nuclear weapons should be to deter the use of other nuclear weapons, this NPR moves us in that direction and is a vast improvement over the Bush Administration’s NPR. 

On Thursday, Obama will fly to Prague to sign the new START treaty with Russia which will reduce both countries’ nuclear arsenals.  He will then rush home for the Nuclear Security Summit, a gathering that will include over 50 countries, who will for the most part be represented by heads of state.  That summit, in turn, will be followed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference at the United Nations in May. 

Like I said, this is a very busy time for nuclear diplomacy.  One good way to stay on top of the news is to set your google news alerts to “Joseph Cirincione.” Failing that, you should definitely follow his twitter feed

Other good resources to help you navigate the news the next few weeks include:

-Kenneth Luango of the Arms Control Association lists some  measures for “Making The Nuclear Security Summit Matter.” It’s pretty wide-ranging, but well worth a read to get a scope of what might be discussed next week. 

-Jim Wurst, a long time journalist in UN circles who specializes in the vagaries of nuclear diplomacy, offers an excellent curtain raiser on what to expect from the NPT review conference in May. 

-No doubt, the naysayers will say nay.  Fortunately, an excellent book exists that lays waste to the foundations of anti-arms control hawks.  Peter Scoblic’s US vs Them artfully traces the history of hawks’ opposition to arms control treaties and shows how this undermines American security. Tuck it under your arm in case you bump into this guy on the street. 

Happy reading!