By Manpreet Sethi*
As was expected with the arrival of President Trump to the White House, he put all US foreign policy issues under review. He has also called for a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that is likely to be announced in 2018. The last NPR was brought out under the watch of former President Barack Obama in 2010 and much has changed since then, particularly in US-Russia relations. The last NPR had downgraded the threat from near peers such as Russia, reducing the need for retaining the kind of deterrence strategies that had been pursued during the Cold War years. Instead, the challenge of securing available nuclear material and technology worldwide in order to minimise, if not obviate, the risk of nuclear terrorism had been upgraded to the highest level.
Accordingly, President Obama invested in Nuclear Security Summits even as he reduced the role of nuclear weapons in his national security strategy. In doing so, Obama had reversed some of the recommendations of the earlier NPR brought out by his predecessor in 2002. Drafted under President Bush, the previous NPR had promoted a unilateralist US posture premised on the idea of nuclear pre-emption, support for development of new types of nuclear weapons, retention of the option of nuclear testing, and pursuit of missile defence. While it had reduced the number of US nuclear weapons, it had contributed significantly to increasing the salience of these weapons. President Trump might end up taking the US down that path again as he has mandated the Pentagon to get him a nuclear arsenal that is “safe, secure, effective, reliable and aptly tailored to deter 21st century threats and reassure allies.”
While presidential preferences reflect significantly in the nature of the NPR, it is also influenced by the opposing pulls and pushes arising from the interests and concerns of the many stakeholders in the US nuclear arsenal. Concluded after several rounds of inter-agency deliberations, the NPR encapsulates many interests. Prima facie it appears that the Trump NPR will not draw away from the modernisation of the US arsenal that President Obama had approved before demitting office. It is likely to retain a strong focus on US nuclear weapons in order to handle the new threats that have emerged in the form of a more muscular Russia, a more assertive China, a more unpredictable DPRK and an Iran whose long-term intentions the US is still worried about. Given his own proclivity for military might, Trump is unlikely to change course unless some real breakthroughs become possible in the relationships with Russia, China and DPRK. Such possibilities look absolutely bleak at this time. Rather, all indications are that nuclear weapons states are moving towards modernising their arsenals and showcasing nuclear capabilities – in military parades and through cavalier statements. Not surprising then that several analysts are arguing in favour of retaining nuclear capability as a means of credible deterrence and dissuasion against proliferation. Amassing unlimited nuclear power is seen as being more effective to deter enemies, reassure allies, and to dissuade potential proliferators by giving them no hope “of ever achieving nuclear parity with the US.” Trump has made it clear that he is willing to race anyone on nuclear weapons and remain “on top of the pack.”
While such bluster appears to be the order of the day, these arguments certainly have an adverse impact on international security. As officials prepare the NPR, it may help to remember three things. One, enemies are definitely deterred by the other side’s military might but there is no proof that the promise of unlimited nuclear power deters more. Deterrence is a function of many sources and influences including, most importantly, the value at stake. Therefore, when a country attaches a great value to something – territory, survival, or stature – it is unlikely to be deterred even by the threat of nuclear devastation. The desire to possess unlimited nuclear power is a meaningless exercise since for those who want to be deterred, even a few would be enough; and for those who cannot be deterred, even an unlimited nuclear arsenal would be futile.
Two, nuclear parity is hardly a pre-requisite for credible nuclear deterrence. Deterrence is based on the ability to inflict ‘unacceptable damage’ and hence is dependent on the unacceptability threshold of a country. There can never be symmetry in these thresholds and some countries could be willing to allow more damage to themselves – including accepting visions of more ‘dying beautifully’ – than others. Equivalence is not required in the nuclear game; not between US and Russia, or US and China. Therefore, an arms race in nuclear warheads is not only unnecessary but also damaging.
Three, far from dissuading proliferation, a commitment to hold on to nuclear weapons infinitely is certain to fuel more proliferation. History illustrates that in order to deter nuclear weapons, a rival has but to acquire the same class of weapons. How then can proliferation be stopped? This is especially so when countries like DPRK have demonstrated that very few weapons are actually needed to achieve a range of objectives such as guarding against regime change, driving a hard bargain, or altering even a big nuclear power’s foreign policy. Did the US not say early in 2006 that the “US would never live” with a nuclear DPRK? In fact, it has been doing so for the last decade and more.
The dangers arising from the presence of nuclear weapons are many: the risk of nuclear exchange, inadvertent escalation, miscalculation, unauthorised use, the threat of loose nukes, and above all, nuclear proliferation with its attendant risks. Moving to nuclear infinity means living with them in perpetuity.
The US would do well to heed these risks and recognise the need for accepting and imposing certain mutual limits on weapons and testing. President Obama’s dictum was no new nuclear warheads, capabilities, or missions. Retaining this basic thought would not only indicate fiscal prudence, which should appeal to the business-minded Trump, but also lead to better international security. Even if the international climate is averse to the idea of the elimination of nuclear weapons right now, attempts at reducing their salience through a number of bilateral and multilateral initiatives should be the priority. Moving towards more and more advanced capabilities to counter the adversary’s actions could only lead to more security dilemmas. Political dialogue coupled with downplaying military might can be the only win-win solution for the current slew of challenges.
* Manpreet Sethi
Senior Fellow and Project Leader, Nuclear Security, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi