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America's misguided nuclear strategy

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
March 7, 2006
International Herald Tribune

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Last week, President George W. Bush sealed a landmark nuclear deal with India. This week, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors meets to confront the Iranian nuclear program. At the same time, Congress has been grappling with a raft of nuclear items in the president’s budget. And all the while, the nuclear standoff with North Korea continues. This bursting nuclear agenda raises a question: Does America need a nuclear weapons policy?

When Henry Kissinger posed a similar question in his 2001 book Does America Need a Foreign Policy? he meant to criticize the conduct of foreign policy as the sum of exercises in crisis management. A similar critique applies to American nuclear weapons policy today.

The alternative—sorely needed now—is a nuclear weapons policy based upon enduring foundations. The United States, of course, faces crises that must be addressed now. But it faced crises during the Cold War, and still sustained a core set of nuclear arms control principles for several decades. Today, a new set of fundamental principles—whatever their specific details—would provide coherence, direction and predictability to American nuclear weapons policy. That would make American policy far more effective.

American nonproliferation policy is incoherent. The United States proposes to promote nuclear energy technologies in India that might increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, while it attempts to persuade Iran to curb its own activities. In recent years, it has explored a range of new nuclear weapons concepts while counseling others that nuclear weapons are anachronistic. There will inevitably be tension among elements of American policy, and even apparent double standards will sometimes make sense. But the current state reflects a lack of underlying principles to guide policy makers through these conflicts, with the result being a nonproliferation strategy that often works against itself.

American policy also lacks direction. During the Cold War, our aim was stability—we sought to avoid nuclear war. But what is the shape of the nuclear world that the United States now aims to create? Is our goal to prevent all future proliferation? It might seem so, but we have already failed with North Korea. Is our aim to reduce the impact where proliferation occurs? If it is, we have not sufficiently engaged Iran’s neighbors to prevent a chain reaction should Iran go nuclear. Is our object to prevent nuclear terrorism? Perhaps, but we have allowed Cold War-style concerns about Russia to interfere with efforts to secure its arsenal from terrorists. This lack of direction and long-term vision means that steps taken today will provide an inadequate foundation for the future.

All of this makes United States policy unpredictable, for allies and for enemies alike. As a result, friends are wary of following the United States—they do not know where its policy will lead. In the case of Iran, this has led to a two-year delay in referring Iran to the UN Security Council. Every time the United States suggested making that move, its European allies protested that they did not know what would come next.

Principles would provide guidance in resolving tensions, thus producing more coherent policy; they would provide direction by defining long-term goals; and, as foundations that would last longer than specific policies, they would promote predictability in the American approach. They would also provide boundaries within which partisans could debate American policy, much as Cold War arms control principles once effectively channeled partisan debate.

Building long-term foundations will not obviate the need to resolve today’s crises, and the administration has become more effectively engaged in addressing a range of problems. But gains today may prove illusory without a long-term plan.

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