Friday, April 30, 2010

(A belated analysis of the Obama Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, released on April 5, 2010)

The Obama Nuclear Posture Review is a profoundly political document whose main effect is diplomatic. It makes no major strategic changes to US nuclear doctrine, and the changes it does make are hedged by reservations. The document’s major departure from its predecessor, the Bush Administration’s 2002 NPR, is that of tone. As one reviewer noted, President Obama is no longer brandishing “a nuclear sword in every direction," which is the main legacy of this review.

First to the details. The review eschews a policy that the “sole use” of nuclear weapons is for deterrence, instead declaring that

“The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.
The NPR sends a message to North Korea and Iran, declaring that
"the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations."
While the US will not use nuclear weapons to counter a chemical weapons attack, the review includes an exception for biological weapons, stating that
"the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and U.S. capacities to counter that threat."
Regarding the contentious issue of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, the NPR states that
"The United States will consult with our allies regarding the future basing of nuclear weapons in Europe, and is committed to making consensus decisions through NATO processes."
In essence, although abandoning the bluster of the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration still maintains the right to use nuclear weapons outside of the context of a nuclear attack on the United States, and clearly describes North Korea and Iran as countries for which any assurances do not apply. Although this represents a shift in tone from the Bush years, its strategic impact is minimal. In fact, Stephen Walt has gone so far as to declare that “from a purely strategic perspective, this new statement is largely meaningless.”

Now to the politics. (more after the jump)

It isn’t a coincidence that the release of the NPR on April 5, 2010 was the one year anniversary of the president’s speech in Prague, where he outlined a vision of “a world without nuclear weapons.” The administration knew that the introduction to any story about the NPR would include his 2009 speech, with an image of President and Mrs. Obama in front of the historic Prague skyline on b-roll. The previous pronouncements of the president were further referenced by Secretary Gates, who in his press conference emphasized that the NPR is part of overall US policy with a “long-term goal of a nuclear free world.” Domestically, this amounts to a large political gesture to the left, who overwhelmingly support the “elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

At the same time, President Obama conceded politically to the right, maintaining significant reservations in US strategic nuclear policy and a “tough” stance toward Iran and North Korea.
Disregarding exhortations from the policy community and the left to adopt a policy that the “sole use” of nuclear weapons would be for deterrence, Obama instead had the NPR adopt the “fundamental role” language outlined previously. Although the difference seems largely semantic, anything less than “sole use” is a significant signal. This type of “toughness hedge,” viewed by many as unnecessary from a policy standpoint, was no doubt used to preempt and deter the inevitable attacks from the right on Obama’s more conciliatory rhetoric. In addition, the document’s reservation to make “adjustments” regarding biological weapons developments is a stark reminder of US willingness to fight back. This type of language, abhorred by many on the left, is just the thing to remind conservative Americans that Obama is in fact their Commander in Chief.

Beyond the push and pull of domestic politics, the same dynamic can be seen in the diplomatic arena. The odd combination of conciliatory rhetoric and unchanged strategic nuclear policy will likely have the effect of placating allies longing for less abrasive American leadership, while at the same time issuing a stern warning to the “outliers” of North Korea and Iran. Politically, this seems to work for the US’s allies, but its effectiveness vis-à-vis Kim Jong Il and President Ahmadinejad is likely to be minimal, if not counter-productive.

In addition, the argument that the NPR is a mainly political and diplomatic document is strengthened by the fact that the NPR is merely “declaratory policy,” is not binding in any way, and can be changed at any time. Declaratory policy, not even rising to the level of an executive order, is by definition rhetoric.

Is the Nuclear Posture Review “just” a political scrap of paper? No, surely not. It puts a crucial emphasis on the threat of unsecured fissile material and the threat of nuclear terrorism, a first in a nuclear posture review. But the appropriate frame with which to view the NPR is that of political balancing, not that of strategic transformation. Obama, as the president of a politically polarized country and the leader of the free world, must balance many constituencies in the policies he makes. In those roles, tone matters a lot.

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