Nuclear Zero 2012: We Disarm While Others Arm

Original Article

Begin with recent nuclear weapon-related developments:

China tests new missiles, including road-mobile and nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missiles, plus multiple warhead missiles whose deployment will give China a nuclear first-strike capability. Viktor Yesin, a former chief of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, publicly places the Chinese nuclear arsenal at 1,600 to 1,800 warheads, with half operationally deployed and the remainder in storage, based upon China’s combined 70 tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

Russia announces a new missile submarine class that will carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles that can hit within 10 feet of their target. Indian officials publicly state that nuclear weapons are essential for security, pending world nuclear disarmament; they disclose that three times prior to 1998, India’s nuclear arsenals blunted (unspecified) strategic threats made against India. Pakistan, in a desperate economic situation, sits on some 100 atomic bombs it can sell for petrodollars. Iran is scrubbing a key suspect nuclear site before U.N. inspectors arrive. So what does our State Department propose?

In a new report, “Mutual Assured Stability: Essential Components and Near Term Actions” (Aug. 14, 2012), State proposes rapidly implementing deep cuts in America’s nuclear arsenal. Its 18 recommendations include developing “a common understanding of the essential components necessary for “mutual assured stability” (Rec 2); developing with Russia a “shared understanding” regarding U.S. and Russian missile defense (Rec 3); developing a … “doctrine of general deterrence … without singling out a particular adversary or enemy”; (Rec 4); “…developing a mutual understanding of each other’s motivation for the possession of nuclear weapons” (Rec 6); and to “develop a U.S.-Russia understanding of how each would act or not act if a nuclear weapon was used anywhere else in the world” (Rec 13).

President Obama and his nuclear policy advisors clearly assume that there is a full common understanding reachable between the U.S. and Russia—a pure common interest in agreed-upon outcomes—and thus that all nuclear forces, regardless of country, have identical missions. The administration also impliedly assumes that a bilateral agreement with Russia is the primary goal for evolving American nuclear policy. Team Obama further assumes that Russia’s nuclear policy is most concerned with American, and not Chinese, nuclear forces.

None of these assumptions holds true. First, the American and Russian forces have never had identical missions. America’s arsenal has always served three purposes: deterring an attack on the homeland; extending deterrence against attack to key American allies; and retaliating against attackers if deterrence fails. Conversely, Russia’s nuclear forces, while serving for deterrence and response, also are designed to intimidate adversaries so as to coerce them to genuflect to Moscow’s wishes. Russia has had few genuine allies—Castro’s Cuba, China before 1962, North Korea—nothing like America’s far-flung alliance systems.

Second, for years Russia’s fear has been primarily directed at China and its growing nuclear arsenal, just as China’s nuclear arsenal was vulnerable to a Moscow first strike in the 1960s and 1970s. Moscow weighed a pre-emptive nuclear first strike on China several times from 1969 to the mid-1970s.

Third, placing Russian concerns at the center of 21st century deterrence policy diverts necessarily America’s focus from nuclear proliferation by unstable hostile powers. Thus, the administration cannot rouse itself to take decisive action to stop Iran’s nuclear quest. Instead, it waters down sanctions and views any military options as essentially hypothetical.

Fourth, attempting to devise a “doctrine of general deterrence … without singling out a particular adversary or enemy…” is an odd concept. Deterrence is best calibrated to particular adversaries, and the calculus varies depending upon which adversary is involved. American nuclear forces deterred a Russian conventional attack overrunning Western Europe during the Cold War. Our effort to deter a nuclear strike on Israel wouldn’t involve stopping massed Iranian tanks.

Finally, attempting to fashion a doctrine to respond to any nuclear weapon detonation anywhere in the world presumes that each nuclear event will create a situation to which America and Russia will have identical interests in how to respond. This proposition is simply absurd.

Imagine the horror of an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel. Such would destroy America’s position in the Mideast, while Russia’s regional position would hardly be comparably compromised. Were North Korea to attack South Korea with nuclear weapons, America’s Asian position would be severely damaged. Russia, (then the core of the former Soviet Union) in 1950 backed the North’s invasion of the South, and would commensurately gain from an American Korea defeat.

True, there have been successful U.S.–Russia arms control initiatives. Most notable are the post-Cold War Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction project and the Hot Line installed between Washington and Moscow after the Cuban Missile Crisis at the height of the Cold War.

But the commonality of strategic interest that President Obama assumes is at the foundation of global geopolitics is an idealist fantasy, as is Obama’s Russia “reset” policy. And equally fantastical is the general deterrence project his State Department now proposes to embark upon with the Russians.

John Wohlstetter

Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (beg. 2001) and the Gold Institute for International Strategy (beg. 2021). His primary areas of expertise are national security and foreign policy, and the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He is author of Sleepwalking With The Bomb (2nd ed. 2014), and The Long War Ahead and The Short War Upon Us (2008). He was founder and editor of the issues blog Letter From The Capitol (2005-2015). His articles have been published by The American Spectator, National Review Online, Wall Street Journal, Human Events, Daily Caller, PJ Media, Washington Times and others. He is an amateur concert pianist, residing in Charleston, South Carolina.