Laying out a nuclear weapons strategy for the decade ahead, President Obama struck bold notes on rhetoric and promises in the Nuclear Posture Review report issued Tuesday. The document is filled with laudable goals that mark a change from the past and may help advance his dream of a world without nukes. But flying at high altitude also has certain advantages; you can avoid the rough terrain below. And down on the ground, the president stopped short of changing the status quo on critical issues that have lingered since the Cold War, such as tactical nuclear weapons and keeping missiles on alert.
Among the most significant decisions, the United States did not brandish the nuclear sword in every direction. Instead, the document declares that nuclear weapons are "fundamentally" for use as a deterrent against nuclear attack, and won't be used against those who follow the rules of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is a real change from George W. Bush's nuclear posture review, eight years ago, which threatened nukes against all kinds of targets, including any attack involving weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, chemical, or biological -- aimed at the United States or its allies and friends.
To fulfill his own vision of reduced nuclear dangers, Obama needs to coax others to believe in the basic deal of the nonproliferation treaty: the existing nuclear powers will move toward disarmament, so others don't need to pursue their own weapons. But this is a promise many nations have come to doubt. To reassure, Obama affirmed he will not build new nuclear weapons or seek new missions for them. This is another shift from Bush, who wanted to build a new nuclear warhead, but was rebuffed by Congress.
The posture review also speaks candidly about global threats, and the most urgent ones are not in the Kremlin. It says: "Today's most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism." No. 2 is "nuclear proliferation," especially the quests by Iran and North Korea for nuclear arms. Russia is no longer an adversary, and China is "increasingly interdependent" with the United States. Thus, the world has changed: "The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons." While the nuclear arsenal has not become irrelevant, the review declares that the United States can get by with "significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons."
In putting the nuclear pistol in its holster when it comes to conventional and chemical weapons, Obama offered a caveat about biological weapons. The review says that, given their "catastrophic potential" and the revolution in the life sciences, the United States "reserves the right" to use nuclear weapons "that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat." The suggestion is that nuclear weapons are still a possible deterrent against an adversary contemplating the use of dangerous pathogens. This leaves unspoken the very real problem of attribution: in a pandemic or outbreak of disease it may not be at all clear, at least right away, to whom the nuclear missile should be addressed.