War Stories

How Important Is Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review?

Nuclear policy matters, but the new document will be a side show.

Should we be concerned about Obama’s nuclear strategy?

The once-great nuclear-arms debate is about to be shaken from its long, blissful slumber. A racket will ensue. You’d be wise to ignore it.

Next month, the Obama administration will release its Nuclear Posture Review, a purportedly “seminal” document that, according to a New York Times story, will herald a new strategy on the use (or nonuse) of nuclear weapons, “permanently reduce” the U.S. arsenal by thousands of warheads, and “annul or reverse” several of George W. Bush’s plans to build new nuclear armaments.

That’s the buzz, anyway. Don’t count on any of it.

This posture review, like the two before it (the first under Bill Clinton in 1994, the second under Bush in 2002), will almost certainly not result in anything new, even if it alleges otherwise. Even if President Barack Obama does pursue some new nuclear policies, this document will have had little to do with it.

Whatever fuss the review kicks up, four facts are clear.

First, there is no substantial constituency, in Congress or elsewhere, to build any new U.S. nuclear weapons, nor has there been for decades.

Second, Obama has already said that he wants to slash the nuclear arsenal. There is no rational basis for not slashing it, but whether that happens will not be determined by the conclusions of an executive review.

Third, whatever Obama says about the circumstances under which he’d use nuclear weapons (for instance, were he to say that he’d never use them first), there is no reason for other world leaders to believe him or to assume that some future president might view the matter differently.

Fourth, however deeply the United States and Russia cut their nuclear arsenals, the move won’t dissuade other nuclear wannabes from pursuing arsenals of their own.

In other words, whatever this document ends up saying (and, apparently, there’s still some internal debate on the fine points), it is unlikely to be a game-changer.

Let’s take the points, one by one.

First: George W. Bush did try to transform the equation to flesh out some notions first trotted out, but only vaguely, in the Reagan administration—that nukes were just another kind of weapon and that nuclear war was winnable. He used the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review to articulate these fantasies.

That document was classified, but portions of it leaked, among them these jaw-droppers: “Nuclear weapons … provide credible military options to deter a wider range of threats. … Greater flexibility is needed with respect to nuclear forces and planning than was the case during the Cold War. … Nuclear-attack options that vary in scale, scope and purpose will complement other military capabilities.”

To back up these ideas, Bush or his underlings in the Pentagon proposed building a new generation of low-yield nuclear bombs, nuclear bunker-busters, and a program called the Reliable Nuclear Warhead, which was purported to be merely a way to ensure that the aging stockpile still worked but which in fact included many upgraded features. The point of all these programs was to destroy the “nuclear taboo”—to insinuate nukes into the arsenal of usable, useful weapons.

A front-page story in the Feb. 28 New York Times reported that Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review would “annul or reverse” all these Bush initiatives. The thing is, though, there’s nothing to annul or reverse. Every year that Bush put these programs in the budget, Congress took them out or slashed their funding to nearly nothing—even when Republicans controlled both houses. The programs never got off the drawing board, and so neither did the revolutionary provisions of Bush’s nuclear review. One useful thing Obama’s review could—and almost certainly will—do is to declare, unequivocally, that the 2002 review does not reflect U.S. policy. But it never really did, anyway.

Second: Obama is reportedly using the posture review to formalize the “joint understanding” of a follow-on to the U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. This understanding, signed last July by Presidents Obama and Dmitri Medvedev (as a principle, not a commitment), would cut the number of each side’s “strategic delivery vehicles”—the long-range missiles and bombers that carry nuclear weapons—from 1,600 to 800 and each side’s operational bombs and warheads from 2,200 to 1,500.

The question, apparently not yet resolved in the interagency discussions, is whether the Nuclear Posture Review will recite these numbers or push for deeper cuts still.

Either way, this is a great idea. As anyone who has ever dealt with nuclear-war plans will tell you, it’s a challenge to come up with suitable targets for as many as 1,000 warheads, even under the most far-fetched scenarios. And the more deeply that the United States and Russia cut their long-range missiles, the harder the challenge becomes, since most of each side’s warheads are aimed at the other’s missiles—two or three warheads per missile, to allow for duds and misses. (So when the United States cuts one missile, Russia needs two or three fewer warheads and vice versa.)

Yet none of this matters unless a treaty ordering these cuts is ratified by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. And if that happens, it won’t be because the Nuclear Posture Review lays out a logical case that it should happen.

The posture review would have one role to play in the politics of arms control. Documents of this sort tend to reflect a consensus. If it does call for deeper cuts, that would mean the Joint Chiefs of Staff had endorsed it—and, therefore, that they’d testify on the treaty’s behalf in Senate hearings. Even so, ratification would hardly be guaranteed, especially in today’s Senate.

Third: The most intense debate in the review process so far has been over whether the president should declare a policy of “no-first-use”—a pledge that the United States would never initiate the use of nuclear weapons. This relates to another debate, over whether the document should state that the “only” role of nukes is to deter other countries from using them—or that deterrence is but the “primary” role. The latter would suggest that we might at least threaten to use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack, or to an overwhelming conventional invasion of an ally’s territory, or to some other provocation.

One little-understood fact of the nuclear era is that the United States has always had a first-use policy. The Eisenhower administration’s policy of “massive retaliation” meant that, if the Soviets invaded Western Europe, even if they did so without using any nuclear weapons, we would retaliate with a massive nuclear attack, not just against the invading army but against military targets throughout the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe. This wasn’t merely declared policy; it was reflected in the Strategic Air Command’s actual nuclear-war plans. (For more on this, see my book The Wizards of Armageddon.)

President John F. Kennedy and his Defense Secretary Robert McNamara began a buildup of non-nuclear forces in Europe so that in the event of war the United States wouldn’t be faced with the choice of “surrender or holocaust”—at least, not right away. But the option of first use was never taken off the table—either by Kennedy or by any president since.

This made sense as a policy of deterrence. The Soviets might not quite have believed that we would follow through on this threat, especially once they built up nuclear parity; if we responded to an invasion of Europe by firing nukes at the Soviet Union, they could fire their own nukes back at the United States. But wars, once started, can spiral out of control, and the risk of catastrophe was high enough to deter even much thinking about invasion.

That said, it’s hard to see what a first-use policy buys us today. If anything, it might spur certain countries to get their own atomic arsenal, even a small one, so that if they do get into a war with some important U.S. ally, they might deter the United States from nuclear intervention.

At the same time, though, it’s equally hard to see what we’d get from a policy of no-first-use, even if other countries’ leaders believed the promise.

The idea behind no-first-use is to “delegitimize” nuclear weapons—to announce to the world that the foremost nuclear power, the only nation that has ever dropped A-bombs in anger, has concluded that these things have no military utility, no place in wars of the present or the future.

The problem is that history reveals they do have value, whatever we might belatedly say—not necessarily in their actual use but merely in their possession. They elevate one’s standing in a region (see Pakistan); they deter others from attacking (see China in the mid-1960s or North Korea now); they can be brandished as a way of keeping others from responding to lower level forms of aggression. (If Saddam Hussein had built some nukes before invading Kuwait in 1990, it’s doubtful that George H.W. Bush and James Baker could have amassed a large coalition to push him back.)

Which leads to the fourth point: No matter what Washington says, or how deeply the United States or Russia or the other established nuclear powers cut their own nuclear arsenals, it will probably have minimal impact on other countries’ decisions to go, or not to go, nuclear themselves. Their own interests will determine those decisions. In fact, one could argue that a U.S. pullback of this sort may make some technologically advanced countries—which have relied on America’s “nuclear umbrella” for their security—to take the leap and build their own bombs.

The true value of this Nuclear Posture Review depends, in part, on how President Obama views—and presents—its purpose. If he sees it as a way to build institutional support for drastic arms cuts, it could be very valuable indeed. If he sees it as a first step toward his grander goal of wiping nuclear weapons off the face of the earth, he’s going to be sorely disappointed.

Become a fan of  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.