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U.S. Nuclear Posture's New Priorities

Interviewee: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 6, 2010

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The main emphasis in the latest Nuclear Posture Review is in the declaratory changes --that the United States will only use nuclear weapons against nuclear states or states that are not in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or not in compliance with it, like North Korea or Iran, says Michael A. Levi, a CFR expert on arms control. He says another important new emphasis is on preventing nuclear terrorism and preventing proliferation. Also significantly he says, the administration is going to "reinvigorate" the U.S nuclear complex, but not pursue steps on producing new nuclear weapons.

What are the main points of this Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the first done by the United States since 2001?

There are three principal new points: The first is a change in U.S. declaratory policy. The new posture review says that the United States will only use nuclear weapons against states that either have nuclear weapons, or which are not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or that are signatories but who are violating their nonproliferation obligations.  The second is the priority given to preventing nuclear terrorism and preventing proliferation. This is certainly a first for a posture review and reflects a much broader sense of how nuclear weapons and U.S. nuclear policy fits into U.S. strategy.  And the third point is that the administration is going to "reinvigorate" as it sees it, the U.S nuclear complex, but it will not pursue any steps that come even close, right now, to producing new nuclear weapons.

The United States wants only to modernize the current ones?

President Obama's idea is to make sure that the current weapons work, and perhaps consolidate design, but not to develop new weapons. The headline in the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review of 2001, was the idea of new nuclear weapons and it was something that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who was Bush's defense secretary at the end) emphasized the importance of pretty soon before this administration came into office. So, that certainly reflects the president's preference over that of the Defense Department.

In the past the United States held out the right to use nuclear weapons in case of an overwhelming conventional weapons attack.  But now the United States seems to be suggesting that the main countries that have to worry about a nuclear attack would be North Korea, which has nuclear weapons and is not a party to the NPT anymore, and Iran, which while a signatory to the NPT, the U.S. says is threatening to build nuclear weapons. Is that correct?

The posture review singles out states that are either not in the NPT or that are not in compliance with it, and that's Iran in particular, and maybe Syria.

It's a bit more complex than that, and it's slightly confusing.  I suspect the administration is going to have to clarify a bit. There are a series of paragraphs in the report that seem to move back and forth between different approaches, trying to find a happy medium.  But what the administration has said is that it's still maintaining the same approach to states that have nuclear weapons, and in particular that means that if a state that has nuclear weapons launches an attack using conventional or chemical or biological weapons, the United States can respond using nuclear arms. The posture review singles out states that are either not in the NPT or that are not in compliance with it, and that's Iran in particular, and maybe Syria. The posture review goes to great pains to say that none of this means that there is an increased likelihood of the use of U.S. nuclear weapons, against any of these states, and quite the contrary. But what it's trying to do is establish a very clear connection between being a member in good standing of the NPT, and the specific benefit of his negative security assurance. That symbolic connection may come at some slight expense to strategic clarity, because there is no circumstance I can imagine in which the United States is going to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear Iran.

When Obama when he was in Prague last spring he gave a major speech saying he wanted to end the use of nuclear weapons.  How far along are we, really? The NPR still says we will have nuclear weapons, on the ground, in the air, and underwater.

The president also said in his Prague speech that we probably wouldn't see this in his lifetime, and he was accurate in that observation. But the reality is that essentially all the steps in this posture review, can be embraced by someone who does not think that we should ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons. We are very far from that. The idea is to move steadily in that direction. And the NPR takes real, but modest steps toward that end. There is this overall philosophical step of actually putting this objective in the NPR, which is a big difference in how people have thought before. But in terms of actual substance, a comprehensive test-ban treaty, strategic arms negotiations with Russia, reduced force levels, increased security of nuclear weapons and materials, all of those things can make perfect sense to someone who does not believe in the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

He's going to sign this second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russians later this week, and the NPR takes note of this.  What is the significance of that treaty?

The significance of that treaty is that it reflects an attitude in the administration that arms control negotiations can be a means of building confidence with countries, and that tracks with the historical record of arms control. Arms control negotiations have rarely actually limited arms, but they have provided a forum and a setting in which to understand each other's strategic thinking and strategic abilities better, and that's what this START agreement delivers. In terms of actual numbers, it's extremely modest, and the posture review acknowledges that and says that the United States is going to study further options. And interestingly, it's very explicit that future U.S. reductions will be closely related to what Russia does. This is a very different level of clarity on this matter from what we've seen in the past.  In the past, there's been a peculiar attempt to pretend that our forces aren't actually linked to any particular other country.

Do you think the START treaty will be readily ratified? It will require sixty-seven votes in the Senate.  Or do you think that the Republicans will delay it until after the November elections?

Congress is very busy, and I don't think it has much to do with the Republicans, but it will, I suspect, be pushed back until after the elections. Senator Richard Lugar, the minority leader in the Foreign Relations Committee, has enthusiastically supported the treaty. The posture review is written in a cautious way to make sure that people can't link it to the treaty as a way of objecting to that.  I expect it to be eventually ratified. It's certainly going to be trickier than people assume to get approval.

[E]ssentially all the steps in this posture review can be embraced by someone who does not think that we should ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons...The idea is to move steadily in that direction. And the NPR takes real, but modest steps toward that end.

Some people may claim that the preamble provides some window to Russian opposition on missile defense, but preambles don't have legal power. It's symbolic, both in terms of attitudes towards arms control, and in terms of political strategy. There is a clear political strategy right now of trying to deny the president major bipartisan victories and this would presumably be one, so, the risks of trying to seek ratification now, when a large number of senators have very limited experience with strategic nuclear issues, is too risky. You wait, you educate people, and you use that to build some momentum forward.

After the president gets back from Prague, he has a nuclear security conference, with some forty heads of state showing up. What is this about?

The idea there is to focus on the security of nuclear materials around the world, and to essentially develop a plan and the momentum to maximize security for fissile materials by 2012. And we all know that you can't actually physically lock down all these materials, but there are a lot of opportunities to strengthen security, and he'll want to use this to maintain momentum. I hope that rather than this just being a bunch of press conferences, that participants be required to develop a specific plan coming out of this.  I would have actually liked to see them require the countries to show up with plans to deal with the problem, but certainly that should be an outcome.

Are there any countries we need to really worry about?

Pakistan is still up at the top of the list, not just for worries about proliferation and leakage, but frankly because of worries of instability in South Asia. And so Pakistan's a concern on a wide range of fronts. It doesn't appear that there is currently an effort like A.Q. Khan's underway, but we have a very non-transparent system. We have a system that can change rapidly, so it reminds us that nuclear security, in particular for fissile materials, isn't just about locks and isn't just about guards.  It's about systems, and it's about politics, and it's about the intentions of countries. The administration in the posture review reiterates the Bush administration's statement that a state will be held accountable for any transfers to terrorist groups.

What does that mean?

That is the big question. And the Bush administration when it was in office never clarified it. There is this Cold War tendency that if you can't figure out your policy you use ambiguity and it will somehow give you the best of both worlds. I'd actually like to see greater clarity on what that means, and on the circumstances in which the United States would take particular responses, because that is a very complicated issue in modern deterrence that has been under-thought.

The NPR as well as presidential statements have talked about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which most countries have signed but the Senate rejected it when President Clinton brought it up in 1999. That may come up again this summer.  Is there any chance of getting passed?

This isn't coming up this year.  Firstly, China hasn't ratified, and India and Pakistan aren't on board.  There is broad hesitance on this. I expect that China would ratify it if the United States did, but this is a very charged issue. It's one that may be winnable for the administration, but it requires a lot of education, a lot of effort. The lesson of 1999 and the defeat of the CTBT, is that you don't go into battle unless you already know that you're going to win. And the administration rushed in in 1999 without sufficiently working with the Senate, without knowing exactly where it stood, and it suffered a very problematic defeat. They're going to be more careful this time.

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