Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Barack Obama, Nuclear Weapons, and the Wrong Kind of Experience

As I've said previously, this isn't a blog about the the U.S. Presidential Campaign. I don't want to step too far into the whole morass that is campaign blogging, and I don't intend on spilling ink analyzing contenders' laughs, comparing fund-raising numbers, or, for that matter, making specific endorsements. That said, every once in a while something resembling intelligent discourse on global affairs manages to filter its way through the campaign noise, and in such cases I'll briefly comment.

In this case, I'd like to call attention to a speech made Tuesday by Barack Obama, the inexperience of whom is frequently derided in the campaign's prevailing press narrative. Obama called for the United States to work earnestly toward the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. Some might brush this off as overly-idealistic fluff, unworthy of a serious presidential contender, but I think it is time to put nuclear non-proliferation, coupled with nuclear disarmament, back on the agenda for serious political thinkers.

I'd like to call readers' attention to a recent article in Foreign Affairs by Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky. This man knows something about nuclear weapons; he is a particle physicist who worked on the original Manhattan project, was an adviser to Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter, and had a front-row seat to the evolution of nuclear technology over the last century. Panofsky, echoing such left-wing peaceniks as George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger, convincingly argues that, whatever their past merits, nuclear weapons have no place as a serious component of a modern U.S. global posture, and that what limited role they have as a strategic backstop could be played with a dramatically reduced arsenal. Furthermore, he argues that the political and strategic costs of an over-inflated nuclear posture far outweigh the benefits, and that the current American nuclear arsenal actually makes us less secure.

Before I continue, I would like to emphasize that we have, in some ways, made progress in nuclear disarmament. During the mid-1980s, for example, the combined U.S.-Soviet nuclear arsenal topped 70,000 warheads. In retrospect, the insanity of such a buildup is difficult to comprehend. A recent hypothetical study on the effects of a small regional nuclear war (such as an Indo-Pakistani exchange) predicts tens of millions of immediate casualties, and catastrophic damage to the global climate that would shake the foundations of modern civilization.

That's with the detonation of approximately 100 small weapons.

The notion that some of the most intelligent people in both the United States and the USSR found it necessary to build nuclear arsenals that could independently render the Earth uninhabitable several times over simply defies my understanding (before people chime in with explanations, I understand the internally consistent logic of attempting to mitigate the possibility of a nuclear first-strike, but the logic of psychosis is often internally consistent). Since the Cold War, both superpowers have considerably cut back their arsenals, but the United States remains in possession of over 10,000 warheads including reserve stocks (they are scheduled to be reduced by 2012, but still remain in the thousands). This is well above the level necessary to deter a foreign nuclear attack, and the maintenance of so many weapons does nothing to enhance American security.

Even more counterproductive, though, has been the Administration's pursuit of a new generation of nuclear warheads, in the form of the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program. If the purpose of nuclear weapons is to provide a strategic backstop - a red line drawn around vital security interests that hostile powers may not cross - marginal improvements in quality and reliability will have negligible effect (the notion that, were the United States to launch 400 warheads, two or three might conceivably fail is not likely to significantly alter a potential adversary's cost-benefit calculus). Still more dangerous are plans advanced by some in the government to design a new generation of miniature "bunker buster" nuclear weapons with the intention of using them in situations other than all-out nuclear war.

Whatever tactical advantage might be gained from such developments would be more than outweighed by the damage done to American credibility as a champion of non-proliferation, as well as by the unnecessary re-escalation of an increasingly crowded nuclear arms race. By continuing to give robust nuclear forces a central role in U.S. global policy, we not only expose our non-proliferation efforts to well-grounded charges of hypocrisy (there is that little clause in the NPT that requires nuclear states to work towards eliminating their arsenals), hindering our ability to rally global opinion against potential proliferators like Iran, we also reinforce the norm that only states with nuclear weapons are worthy of international standing. The Iranian nuclear program, for example, certainly has some basis in defensive realism; but, harping on about Iranian nuclear "rights" plays well with the population and shores up the regime in Tehran precisely because the Iranian people view nuclear capabilities as markers of international prestige. Efforts to convince them otherwise ring somewhat hollow when lead by states with thousands of warheads on hair-trigger alert.

When we consider the current U.S. nuclear posture, then, we ought to remember that maintaining a large nuclear arsenal comes with serious political and strategic costs, while delivering limited benefits. Coming back to the campaign, Obama recently stated at a debate that he would not use nuclear weapons in the fight against terrorism. His rivals (Sen. Clinton in particular) chided him for his supposed naivete and inexperience, but upon reflection, many commentators wondered what possible use nuclear weapons would be against groups of guerillas holed up in the mountains of Pakistan. The exchanges reminded me of a quote by a certain Lord Salisbury while stationed in British India:

If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome: if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent: if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.

Whatever happens with the campaign, Senator Obama may be commended for injecting a drop of that.

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