Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, in their short piece of July 6 in Foreign Affairs, assert that the Obama Administration’s nuclear weapons policy appears to be schizophrenic. By describing the policy in this way, Lieber and Press are giving the Obama Administration more credit regarding its commitment to nuclear modernization than it deserves. It is more accurate to describe the Obama Administration as being deceptive about its nuclear weapons policy.
The Obama Administration’s nuclear weapons policy, in reality, is both clear and consistent. It seeks nuclear disarmament and proposes to achieve that goal by marginalizing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy and accepting nuclear weapons in the arsenal that are both aging and decreasingly effective in meeting the needs of deterrence in the post–Cold War world.
Its stated commitments to nuclear modernization are turning out to be more about the tactics of advancing its nuclear disarmament agenda than the substance of modernizing the nuclear force. The Obama Administration early on calculated that if it wanted to obtain Senate consent to the ratification of the New START arms control treaty with Russia, advance U.S. ratification of the previously rejected Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and further the effort that began with the 2010 review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to transform that treaty into a nuclear disarmament treaty, it would be advantageous for it to pledge to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and nuclear arsenal.
It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that while the pledges to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and arsenal helped to achieve the ratification of New START, they are now more of an obstacle to the advancement of the remaining components of the Administration’s arms control and disarmament agenda. Thus, these pledges are all but certain to fade away.
This is why it is necessary to consider other action regarding nuclear modernization from the Administration that Lieber and Press did not emphasize. The Obama Administration, during the debate over New START ratification, did not seek to secure commitments for nuclear modernization from the House Energy and Water Subcommittee on appropriations, which has long been a key obstacle to nuclear modernization. The subcommittee, in predictable fashion, has reduced the Administration’s proposed funding in fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill for such modernization.
Further, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review imposes strict output limits on nuclear modernization, described as no “new nuclear warheads,” no “new military missions,” and no “new military capabilities.” These qualitative limits on outputs are incompatible with an effort to create a new nuclear arsenal that has the capabilities to meet the new requirements for deterrence.
Ultimately, compelling evidence suggests that the Administration, unlike Lieber and Press, believes in the concept of minimal deterrence that eschews counterforce capabilities. The same evidence points toward another arms control treaty with Russia, which the Obama Administration is already planning for, that will codify this policy of minimal deterrence at the expense of the earlier pledges for nuclear modernization.