from The Water's Edge

The President's Inbox: Should the United States Rethink Its Nuclear Weapons Policy?

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Handout via Reuters

Each week between now and the Iowa caucuses, I’m talking with two experts with differing views on how the United States should handle a foreign policy challenge it faces. These special episodes are part of CFR’s Election 2020 activities, which are made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

December 17, 2019

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Handout via Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The latest episode of The President's Inbox is live. This week, I discuss the future of arms control and nuclear weapons policy with Elbridge Colby, cofounder and principal at the Marathon Initiative, and Lori Esposito Murray, president of the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board.

Here are three takeaways from our conversation:

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1. The arms control framework constructed in the 1970s and 1980s is almost gone. A top priority for presidents from Lyndon Johnson to George H.W. Bush was fashioning arms control agreements to limit the U.S.-Soviet nuclear competition. With President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, much of that arms control architecture has now fallen by the wayside. The one major remaining agreement is the New START Treaty, which was ratified back in 2011 and which extended earlier agreements governing U.S. and Soviet (Russian) strategic forces. New START expires on February 5, 2021, or just fifteen days into the next presidential term. New START can be renewed once by mutual agreement for a period of five years.

2. The more things change, the more they remain the same. The nuclear debates of the 1970s and 1980s turned on concepts like deterrence, strategic stability, first- and second-strike capabilities, decapitating attacks, and the like. Technology has marched on and the great power line-up looks different today, especially with China’s rise. But the current nuclear debates turn on the same basic concepts. So the classic works on nuclear strategy remain relevant and worth reading.

3. Arms control doesn’t require formal treaties, but treaties can have one significant advantage. Countries can limit their arms competition through tacit agreements. China, Russia, and the United States, for instance, have since the early 1990s each voluntarily agreed not to test nuclear weapons. But formal agreements can have one advantage over informal ones: they can provide for on-site inspections that can’t be guaranteed by handshake deals.

Both Bridge and Lori have written and commented extensively about nuclear weapons and arms control. Bridge has an article in the newest issue of Foreign Affairs with A. Wess Mitchell arguing that the United States “is gearing up for a new era—one marked not by unchallenged U.S. dominance but by a rising China and a vindictive Russia seeking to undermine U.S. leadership and refashion global politics in their favor.” In an earlier Foreign Affairs article, Bridge contended that, given the emergence of the new great-power rivalry, “if you want peace, prepare for nuclear war.” He has also written that President Trump was right to withdraw the United States from the INF Treaty because “Russia appears unwilling to give up the systems that violate INF (meaning INF is essentially a dead letter), and, more important, the United States no longer benefits from a ban on ground-based intermediate-range systems—but because of China, not Russia.” He has also criticized calls for the United States to adopt a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons on the grounds that such a pledge would paradoxically “raise, rather than diminish, the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used.”

Back in September, Lori led a CFR conference call on nuclear proliferation and arms control that covered not just the topics we discussed with Bridge, but also issues such as Iran, North Korea, and India and Pakistan. In August, she explained “What the INF Treaty’s Collapse Means for Nuclear Proliferation” and argued that “the treaty’s collapse diminishes European security and raises the prospect of the region returning to the hair-trigger instability of the 1980s.” Lori previewed that argument when she joined me on The President’s Inbox back in February to discuss the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty. Last year, she examined the potentially perilous combination of artificial intelligence and nuclear weapons. She concluded that the United States should lead a “process to ensure that these rapid advancements in AI strengthen the command and control of nuclear weapons—not repeat the past and relinquish it to an automatic or nearly automatic Doomsday machine.”

More on:

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One difference today compared to the 1970s and 1980s is that the nuclear debate is no longer solely about the interactions of two superpowers. As more countries have gained nuclear capabilities or expanded the capabilities they already had, the task of creating stable deterrence has become harder. Back in 2014, a CFR Independent Task Force examined that challenge and warned that “changes in one state’s nuclear policy can have a cascading effect on the other states.”

At the top of the podcast, I mentioned the Foreign Affairs article that former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn wrote on “The Return of Doomsday: The New Nuclear Arms Race—and How Washington and Moscow Can Stop It.” Secretary Moniz and Senator Nunn came on The President’s Inbox to explain why they wrote that “the United States and Russia are now in a state of strategic instability” in which “an accident or mishap could set off a cataclysm.”

Lori mentioned two facts about nuclear weapons worth highlighting. First, the stockpiles of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons have plummeted in recent decades. Second, the United States and Russia still possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. This graph illustrates both points:

Nuclear stockpiles have plummeted in recent years.

Bridge mentioned that Thomas Schelling sketched out many of the foundational insights in the often paradoxical world of nuclear strategy. Schelling’s classic work is The Strategy of Conflict. He and Morton Halperin also wrote Strategy and Arms Control.

One topic that came up in the podcast was the Soviet “doomsday system” known as Dead Hand or Perimeter. It sought to guarantee that the Soviet Union would launch a retaliatory strike even if its leadership was wiped out in a decapitating strike. David Hoffman tells the story of its creation in his award-winning book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. The news of Dead Hand’s existence brought to mind for many people the ending of the classic Cold War movie, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

One topic we didn’t get to on the podcast is whether a U.S. president should be able to launch a nuclear strike solely on his (or one day, her) sole authority. CFR’s new podcast, Why It Matters, explored that issue in its debut episode back in October. Just last week, the Nuclear Threat Initiative released a report calling for a reexamination of “the legal authorities and process a U.S. president would confront when making this grave decision.” Secretary Moniz and Senator Nunn wrote a companion piece calling for “taking steps now to increase confidence in the process for considering the use of nuclear weapons.”

Margaret Gach helped in the preparation of this post.

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