Roadmap to Unilateralist Nuclear Policy

In the past year and a half, we’ve heard George W. Bush talk about the need to move beyond the cold war paradigm of U.S. security policy. Specifically, Bush repeatedly discussed reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal to “the lowest possible number consistent with our national security” and taking these weapons off hair-trigger alert. In mid-November, Bush reiterated that position in meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying, “We are talking about reducing and destroying the number of warheads to get down to specific levels.”

The congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR, not to be confused, even for a second with “National Public Radio”), released last week, was an opportunity for President Bush and his team to do just that. The NPR is suppose to provide a framework for formulating a U.S. nuclear strategy for the post-cold war world–something the Clinton administration failed to do with its own nuclear review in 1994.

However, much like the Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which was described by Senator Carl Levin as “full of decisions deferred,” ambiguity prevails.

Assistant Defense Secretary J.D. Crouch held a special briefing with reporters on Wednesday, January 9, 2002 to highlight portions of the classified review delivered to Congress that same day. How does this new approach change U.S. nuclear strategy? In short, the review’s recommendations could push the U.S. into a more dangerous security environment than at the height of the Soviet/American rivalry.

As predicted last year, much of the Bush administration’s nuclear review echoes an earlier report released by the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP). The NIPP report was directed by Dr. Keith Payne, whose main claim to fame is coauthoring a 1980s essay on nuclear war entitled “Victory Is Possible.” Bush National Security Council staffers Robert Joseph and Stephen Hadley were involved in the production of the NIPP study, as was William Schneider, an informal adviser and ideological soul mate of Donald Rumsfeld. (See Bill Hartung’s “Bush’s Nuclear Doctrine: From MAD to NUTS?” http://www.fpif.org/commentary/0012nuclear.html.)

In general, the NIPP report calls future security threats to the U.S. unknown and unpredictable. Therefore, the report concludes that the U.S. must maintain its nuclear arsenal, as well as the ability to design, build, and test new nuclear weapons. The report asserts that conventional weapons are inadequate replacements for nuclear weapons because they do not have the same “destructive power.” As a solution the report recommends the development of “low-yield, precision-guided nuclear weapons”–in other words, a nuclear weapon the U.S. can actually use.

Not surprisingly, the NIPP panel frowns on arms control treaties because “U.S. policymakers today cannot know the strategic environment of 2005, let alone 2010 or 2020. There is no basis for expecting that the conditions that may permit deep nuclear reductions today will continue in the future.”

While the Nuclear Posture Review doesn’t repeat verbatim the NIPP report findings, there are many similarities. On the “bright” side, the review recommends reducing the number of operationally deployed nuclear weapons in the U.S. from 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200. However, “reducing and destroying” may not be the same thing. The number of warheads that would be dismantled and the number that would become part of the active reserve stockpile have not been disclosed. This discrepancy drew immediate criticism from Russia, and threatens to further delay nuclear reductions that have been stalled for almost a decade.

Demonstrating yet again the Bush administration’s distaste for negotiated arms controls, Assistant Defense Secretary Crouch stated, “We are trying to achieve these reductions without having to wait for cold war arms-control treaties.” But, as William Hartung of the Arms Trade Resource Center points out, “The proposed reductions in U.S. and Russian forces are intended to occur over a ten-year period. That’s a long time to rely on trust. Without a formal agreement, it will be far easier for one side or the other to bail out as soon as the political going gets tough.”

In a short but pointed statement, Aleksandr Yakovenko, the spokesman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said, “We hold that Russian American agreements on further reductions of the nuclear arsenals must be, first, radical–down to 1,500 to 2,200 warheads; second, verifiable; and third, irreversible so that strategic defensive arms will be reduced not only ‘on paper.’”

The NPR further suggests transitioning U.S. strategic forces from the cold war triad of ICBMs, bombers, and submarine launched ballistic missiles to a triad of forces that includes non-nuclear and nuclear strike capabilities. Any force structure that relies less on nuclear weapons and more on conventional weapons should be a step in the right direction, but the Bush administration is envisioning an increased reliance on a costly and unproven missile defense system that is likely to provoke nuclear proliferation.

While the review doesn’t come right out and say the U.S. needs new nuclear weapons, Crouch states, “We are trying to look at a number of initiatives. One would be to modify an existing weapon, to give it greater capability against hard targets and deeply buried targets.” Clearly, new weapons means resumed testing. However, Crouch cautioned, “I point to one item on there: No change in the administration’s policy at this point on nuclear testing. We continue to oppose the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”

That was made clear last November when the Bush administration boycotted a UN conference convened to encourage international support for the CTBT. As Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association noted, the boycott “fits a pattern of unilateralist nonengagement that is becoming the hallmark of the Bush administration’s arms control policy.”

Explaining the administration’s nuclear policy, Assistant Defense Secretary Crouch said, “I think one of the things that came out of the NPR is that there is not a single solution to the problem of weapons of mass destruction. It is not entirely a military problem; it also is a diplomatic problem. It is also a problem that will involve other aspects of national power,” Crouch said. By and large, however, the Bush administration has chosen to deal with weapons of mass destruction militarily–not politically.

The Nuclear Posture Review is the roadmap to a unilateralist U.S. nuclear policy. The review makes no mention of the U.S. commitment under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to take concrete steps toward eliminating its nuclear arsenal, a commitment that was reaffirmed at the 2000 NPT review conference. The U.S. and 186 other countries came to a global consensus on nuclear disarmament, declaring it the “only absolute guarantee against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.” The U.S. must lead the way toward this goal.