April 19, 2010

New US Strategic Nuclear Arms Policy: Is America Safer?

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

Short answer: no… but then again, we seriously doubt that we’re in any greater danger either.  The new policy is both revocable and subject to review and modification if circumstances so warrant.  The questions we want to explore are the rationale for announcing a new policy in the first place and whether the recent summit of 47 nations to deal with nuclear risks accomplished any positive good.

The argument which is made by the right against the president’s newly announced policy, namely that enemy nations that are in compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPR) can attack us with non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction with complete impunity from nuclear retaliation seems a bit hysterical. One way or another, any nation that attacks us with biological or chemical weapons should count on a rendezvous with their stone-age ancestors.   On the other hand, the argument from the left, that we have moved the hands of the doomsday clock back several minutes, seems like wishful thinking.  America and the world is not safer… not yet, anyway.

Some of those who have been the biggest critics of our Iraq, Afghanistan and anti-terror policies, and whose main motivation in life seems to be to prove George Bush’s policies were wrong contend that Iran or North Korea may, as a result of the new policy, be incentivized to abandon their plans to build nuclear arsenals and now comply with the nuclear non-proliferation agreement.  This seems more the stuff of Saturday Night Live than serious foreign-policy thinking.   We do not expect that the President will ever answer the phone in the oval office to,.. “Hello, Barack, this is Mahmoud Admadinejad.  Sorry I haven’t responded earlier to your outstretched hand, but your new nuclear policy made me realize that I owe you an apology.”  Or “Hi there Mr. President, Kim Jong-Il calling to let you know that your new policy is so impressive that I, today, personally ordered the dismantling of all our nuclear forces.”

And in the real world, Syria, which not too many months ago had their North Korean supplied nuclear program blown away by Israel, is at it again and has blown a loud new raspberry our way with news that they have started shipping longer-range scud missiles to their proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon.  These nations have demonstrated repeatedly that their goal is not to reduce world terrorism but to expand their influence vis-à-vis their regions and the world.  A nation like Iran that has frequently made clear that it believes  “Israel should be wiped off the map” won’t abandon its evil intentions because it is less, rather than more, fearful of U.S. retaliation.

The forty-seven-nation nuclear summit meeting that convened last week in Washington, D.C. really hasn’t changed the calculus either.  Even though Iran is the biggest destabilizing threat in areas which are already a tinder box, the Chinese continue to take the position that they are against sanctions that are too punitive and that they would be opposed to any sanctions that inconvenienced (they said harmed) other nations that were doing legitimate business with Iran.  This is not exactly an example of the world getting tough with rogue nations.

As to the 47-nation nuclear-risk-reduction summit, as with all summits, the devil is in the details and this summit produced little in the way of details.  It was, in our view, important that the president reestablished American leadership on this vital issue.  It also accomplished what seems to be a serious commitment to continue the Reagan, Bush (41), Clinton, Bush (43) policies to reign in inventories of highly enriched nuclear material, and that is good.  But Pakistan continues to produce plutonium and it not only lives in a neighborhood influenced by Al Qaeda, but also has members of its own government sympathetic to that lethal terrorist organization.  And, as Charles Krauthammer pointed out in the April 17 edition of the Washington Post, the hoopla about the transfer of loose nuclear materials to the U.S. by Ukraine and Canada is old news.  It had been agreed to, but not announced, quite some time ago.

It would also do us well to recognize that pledges and agreements are no better than the resolve or the intentions of the signatories.  In the last century Germany and Japan both were signatories to treaties and protocols that should have made it highly unlikely that either country would, just a few years later, be responsible for unleashing world war.

A few earlier treaties are also worth considering.  At the beginning of the twentieth century battleships were the ultimate weapons.  The nations with the biggest and best fleets quite literally ruled the seas.  Japan devastated Russia in 1904 by sinking its entire navy in the short-lived Russo-Japanese war.  In an effort to reign in the growing Japanese threat the Washington Conference of 1921 was convened and Japan and the United States ultimately agreed to reduce their respective fleets of battleships…an earlier version of a non-proliferation treaty.

As with all such conferences, each participating nation came with its own agenda and special interests. America’s interest was simply to slow or halt the expansion of Japan into the western Pacific.  The United States believed the best way to protect its interests was to secure an agreement that would establish an agreed upon ratio of naval tonnage between Japan and The United States.

Great Britain saw the 1921 conference primarily as an opportunity to protect its interests in Singapore, Hong Kong and other colonial areas.  Japan, on the other hand, wanted British and American recognition of their interests in Mongolia and Manchuria and a treaty that might limit America’s growing naval presence in the Pacific.

And so, America and Japan actually sank their own ships reducing their fleets to agreed-upon tonnages. There was no other example in history of nations intentionally sinking their own ships. But, as we observed earlier, it is the intentions of the signatories that really count, not the words on the document.  Battleships were, indeed, sunk as a result of the Washington Conference, so Japan shifted gears and began building aircraft carriers, which were not covered by the treaty.  Those aircraft carriers were to sink most of what was left of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor less than two decades later.

Of course there is probably no better example of an all-inclusive pact to end war than the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Treaty. Its formal name was the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War. It was the ultimate arms limitation treaty.

Great Britain was there, France was there, America was there and even Germany was there.  Talk about non-proliferation.  Representatives of virtually all of the nations that would soon be combatants in World-War Two scratched their signatures onto a document that committed their nations to eschew war as an instrument of national policy. Following the initial signing of the treaty on August 27, 1928 in Paris by the representatives from: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, India, the Irish Free State, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, many other nations, including the Soviet Union joined the pact.  Within five years Germany was preparing for war and by 1938 World-War Two was raging throughout Europe, North Africa and Asia.

We are not suggesting that treaties and disarmament conferences are a waste of time.  Quite the contrary. In fact, when the time is right, such efforts must be vigorously pursued.  And, in many respects, the time may very well be right.  The United States and Russia have, in fact, been reducing their nuclear arsenals for several years.  Twenty years ago the United States is reported to have had ten thousand nuclear warheads deployed and aimed at Soviet targets. Under the terms of the Moscow Treaty signed by President Bush (43) during his second year in office, we had cut that number down to only two thousand warheads by the time President Obama assumed office. The treaty the President just signed with Russia’s President Medvedev actually only reduces the allowable number of warheads agreed to in the Moscow Treaty by another 150 warheads.

We have reservations about the details of any commitments made in side protocols regarding the defensive missile shield which the U.S. planned to deploy in Poland and the Czech Republic, and we would like to know whether the Administration plans to upgrade our remaining nuclear forces as the Russians have been doing  for years. The treaty, however, is an additional right step in the direction set by President Obama’s predecessors.

The newly announced strategic nuclear policy is, to us, troublesome on two counts.  First, it eliminates ambiguity.  Keeping our adversaries from knowing what any U.S. response to an attack on our allies or on us should be an important element in our overall security.  Our response to the attacks on the World Trade Center that took three thousand innocent lives was to chase from power the Taliban who had given Al Qaeda refuge in Afghanistan.  What if an enemy that was otherwise in compliance with NPR, or a force harbored within their borders, was to attack New York again, this time with anthrax or an equally deadly agent that took three million lives instead of three thousand.  Are we wise to declare what we won’t do in such a circumstance, or is it better to keep such an adversary guessing?

Second, we question whether it is wise to reduce or eliminate the nuclear option without simultaneously beefing up our conventional capability.  By all accounts we are stretched pretty thin right now.   By taking the nuclear option off the table, or by making it less accessible, we increase the risk that potential adversaries might become more adventuresome, especially if they calculate that we don’t have the resources to adequately respond.

It is hard to imagine any nation militarily challenging the United States one-on-one anytime soon.  Russia lacks both the resources and the reason to engage in hostilities with the United States and too much of China’s bread is buttered with American dollars for war with America to make any sense. In other words, neither country’s interests would be served by inordinate tension with America.  Iran, Syria, North Korea or Hugo Chavez’s increasingly troublesome Venezuela are not likely directly to attack America either.  However, they all represent a potential direct threat to nations with which we have close ties or with which we share vital interests.  Each of these nations is also a potential haven for terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and it is within this sphere of thugacracies that the nearest dangers probably lay.

We believe that any nation that provides aid or comfort to any terrorist organization that threatens US interests should live in dread of what we might do if such a rogue group launched an attack against us.  No new American policy should lessen that sense of dread.

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2 responses to “New US Strategic Nuclear Arms Policy: Is America Safer?”

  1. Bill_H says:

    Have you been following what has been going on in Venezuela with its new strategic alliances with Russia & Iran.

  2. Indeed….a potentially huge crisis in the making.

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