Yesterday the “Global Zero” report, chaired by retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright, unpersuasively argued that the U.S. should reduce its nuclear arms to the dangerously low number of 900, of which only half would be deployed. The report also recommends “de-alerting” the U.S. force, making it less capable, and getting rid of the land-based leg of the nuclear triad, making the force less resilient.
Disarmers like President Barack Obama will undoubtedly use this report as an authoritative document defending their plans to continue to lower the number of U.S. nuclear weapons. After all, in March of this year, the President made the flippant remark that the United States has “more nuclear weapons than we need.”
The authors begin their “study” with the conclusion already determined: The goal is to rid the world of nuclear weapons. This is not a national security objective; it is an academic one, driven by an emotional opposition to nuclear weapons themselves. The authors’ goal was not to determine what the U.S. requires to prevent nuclear war, or in the event nuclear war ensues, to win it. On these grounds alone, the report should be dismissed as an unhelpful—indeed, perilous—contribution to national security policymaking.
If one begins with the goal of protecting the American people and allies in an increasingly unpredictable and dangerous world with multiple nuclear powers that have disparate value systems and national goals, then one would conclude the U.S. must maintain and possibly increase the number, in some cases the characteristics, and precision of its nuclear weapons to hold a variety of targets at risk with the most capable weapons.
Because the U.S. values innocent life—even the lives dictatorships don’t—the U.S. must maintain a nuclear force that credibly targets the war-making apparatus of foes and potential foes—not population centers.
What would the makeup of nuclear weapons look like if the U.S. provided credible assurances to Japan? Europe? Allies in the Middle East? If our allies doubt U.S. assurances, it would only make sense that they would acquire nuclear weapons to defend themselves.
Deterrence is an art, and it involves assessing what foes and allies may perceive as constituting credible deterrence and assurance, respectively. Policymakers who take seriously the government’s solemn responsibility to provide for the common defense should take the greatest pains to ensure that the U.S. strikes this balance. This requires humility and the realization that we are in uncertain times—and the stakes are too high to test out impetuous academic theories like the one the Cartwright report advocates.
Lowering the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, allowing the weapons complex and stockpile to deteriorate, and tying the hands of the U.S. by signing on to any other arms control agreement would likely embolden America’s foes, spur nuclear proliferation, and increase the likelihood of nuclear war.