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A World Without Nuclear Weapons’: Prologue for a Mistaken Strategic Nuclear Policy

November 16, 2009
What sort of national security policy can we expect from a president who seeks a “world free of nuclear weapons?” In principle, of course, this is a reasonable and desirable objective. In reality, however, especially considering actual and probable nuclear proliferation by North Korea, Iran and possibly their respective proxies, it is preposterous. For the United States, any policy based on such an unrealizable objective is very dangerous.
In matters of national security policy, every intellectual failure may be dense with implication. By failing to identify serious strategic threats and objectives, the current administration has ignored the core expectations of national survival logic in an anarchic world. Before a safer America could ever be born from a policy of worldwide nuclear disarmament, a gravedigger would have to wield the forceps.
Any further nuclear proliferation should be curtailed, but, ironically, this goal would actually be degraded by the administration’s current proposals. By themselves, nuclear weapons are neither good nor evil. In certain circumstances, these weapons may even be indispensable to national security and deterrence. For example, the nuclear stalemate between this country and the former Soviet Union surely played a critical role in preventing World War III. And however “ambiguous,” Israel’s implicit nuclear deterrent is required for that tiny country’s capacity to simply endure.
The naïve nuclear hopes of President Obama and his advisors represent an elaborate fiction. What we require, instead, is a model of international relations that reflects, realistically, the prevailing passions and principles of all our potential enemies in world politics. Such a model, wherein strategic threats and opportunities would be called by their correct names, would be drawn not from idealized visions but from the informed and indisputable awareness that America’s multiple enemies, still crouched in the bruising darkness, remain stubbornly face down to peace with the United States.
When Pericles delivered his Funeral Oration, with its elaborate praise of Athenian civilization, his perspective was military. As recorded by Thucydides, Pericles remarked: “What I fear more than the strategies of our enemies is our own mistakes.” Later, in Rome, the philosopher/statesman Cicero inquired: “What can be done against force without force?” Today, a president of the United States must still understand that in a world of international anarchy, foreign policy must aim above all at maintaining and improving his country’s relative power position.
America needs nuclear weapons for deterrence. More precisely, we need to continually upgrade and refine these weapons, as well as their associated strategic doctrine. We need to recapitalize our national nuclear deterrent, and ensure that we can maintain all essential global power projection capabilities. This means, at a minimum, a re-examination of nuclear targeting doctrine, and this time with due regard to current threats from both other countries and their proxies. It also means preparing for a world in which our national and sub-national enemies may sometimes be irrational. In all of these doctrinal matters, the president’s current glide path to a nuclear-free world is counterproductive.
Understandably, President Obama’s administration may wish to distance themselves from the prior Bush administration’s defense policies, but a key concern of U.S. strategic doctrine must still be preemption. Like it or not, there are major threats on the horizon that may still call for anticipatory self-defense. In our uncertain strategic future, where enemy rationality cannot always be assumed, and where the effectiveness of national ballistic missile defense would likely be low, the only reasonable alternative to an American preemption could be abject surrender or defeat.
A nuclear threat to American cities need not come from enemy missiles. It could also come from cars, trucks and ships. Ballistic missile defense would be of no use against such ground-based attacks. Could we make all enemy states (e.g., Iran, North Korea) and their surrogates believe that proxy acts of nuclear terrorism would elicit an unacceptable retaliation against them directly? Yes, perhaps we could, but functionally operational answers cannot possibly emerge from an inchoate plan for global nuclear disarmament.
America’s strategic doctrine must rest on the presumption that significant threats of war and terrorism may now derive from a very clear “clash of civilizations,” and not merely from narrow political and ideological differences. This does not mean that President Obama is necessarily wrong in his expanding emphasis on negotiation and diplomacy, but only that he should also acknowledge that some of our principal enemies will be utterly unresponsive to ordinary foreign policies of assorted carrots and sticks. These particular enemies, animated by otherworldly ideals of Jihad, will be animated not by the secular promise of wealth and privilege, but rather by the ultimate form of earthly power – power over death. On occasion, some of these enemies could even come to resemble the suicide bomber writ large, a resemblance that would make a mockery of all traditional bases of deterrence. Such enemies, we should understand, may not concede an inch to conventionally accepted international norms of compromise, coexistence and peaceful settlement.
One Comment leave one →
  1. November 16, 2009 4:00 AM

    Hi. I am a long time reader. I wanted to say that I like your blog and the layout.

    Peter Quinn

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