Yesterday Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Richard Perle published an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal castigating President Obama for pursuing policies that will purportedly lead to the destruction of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Kyl and Perle trot out the usual right-wing talking points on nuclear weapons: the U.S. nuclear stockpile and its supporting intellectual and physical infrastructure are atrophying; U.S. allies are losing confidence in the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent; the CTBT is unverifiable, there is no link between great power nuclear reductions and nonproliferation; the proposed missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic is essential to U.S. security; etc.
Below is my attempt at a point-by-point rebuttal, with my responses in italics.
Consider the president’s declaration, in a major speech this spring in Prague, of “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Will such a world be peaceful and secure? It is far from self-evident.
In the nuclear-free world that ended in 1945 there was neither peace nor security. Since then there have indeed been many wars but none has come close to the carnage that occurred regularly before the development of nuclear weapons, and none has pitted nuclear powers against each other.
The claim that nuclear weapons prevent great power war is an oft-heard criticism of the goal of nuclear abolition. The implication here is that in the absence of nuclear weapons, inter-state politics would come to resemble a Hobbesian state of war.
Setting aside the questionable validity of this argument, supporters of the goal of nuclear abolition do not argue that abolition would be either feasible or desirable right now, given the current realities of international politics. As George Perkovich and James Acton, co-authors of the Adelphi Paper Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, argue, eliminating nuclear weapons would require
states [to] recognize that their security and prosperity is best served by respecting one another’s core interests. It is a model that emphasizes dialogue and diplomacy. States do not need to eschew the use of force entirely but they do need to refrain from unilateral or unauthorized military interventions. We certainly do not want to downplay the daunting challenge of reshaping international relations in this way. There is complete agreement…that one prerequisite would be to solve (or permanently stabilize) those territorial disputes that stimulate proliferation of nuclear weapons and threats to use them [emphasis mine].
Kyl and Perle have every right to argue that such a world is utopian, but they should at least present the views of those they’re attacking fairly.
My response continues below the jump.
[I]n his Prague speech, Mr. Obama announced that the U.S. would “immediately and aggressively” pursue ratification of the comprehensive ban on the testing of nuclear weapons. The administration believes, without evidence, that ratification of the test-ban treaty will discourage other countries from developing nuclear weapons.
Which countries does it have in mind? Iran? North Korea? Syria? Countries alarmed by the nuclear ambitions of their enemies? Allies who may one day lose confidence in our nuclear umbrella?
Supporters of the CTBT do not argue that Treaty “will discourage other countries from developing nuclear weapons” [emphasis mine]. Rather, they argue that a permanent test ban would close off the one reliable avenue by which other states could develop new, sophisticated nuclear weapons or increase the lethality of already existing arsenals.
Furthermore, they argue that the CTBT could raise the cost to North Korea and Iran of continuing their nuclear programs. As Sam Berger, Sam Nunn, and Bill Perry put it in a recent Op-Ed,
Let’s be clear: we are not saying that if we set a shining example by ratifying the CTBT that Iran and North Korea will suddenly see the light and immediately abandon their nuclear programs. That is not our point. We do believe, however, that if the U.S. can move forward on CTBT it would help build and sustain the international cooperation required to apply pressure on nations like North Korea and Iran still seeking the nuclear option, enhance America’s standing to argue that all nations should abide by global nonproliferation norms and rally the world to take other essential steps in preventing nuclear dangers” [emphasis mine].
Finally, the claim that “allies may one day lose confidence in our nuclear umbrella” if the U.S. embraces the test-ban treaty is flat out ridiculous. It would be nice to know which allies Kyl and Perle are talking about, since all of them think the United States should ratify the CTBT.
There are good reasons why the test-ban treaty has not been ratified. The attempt to do so in 1999 failed in the Senate, mostly out of concerns about verification — it simply is not verifiable.
On the contrary, the CTBT is effectively verifiable. The capabilities of the International Monitoring System have improved a great deal since the Senate rejected the Treaty in 1999, as evidenced by its detection of both of North Korea’s small nuclear tests. Any cheating that might go undetected is unlikely to be militarily significant.
It also failed because of an understandable reluctance on the part of the U.S. Senate to forgo forever a test program that could in the future be of critical importance for our defense and the defense of our allies.
Robert Gates, who is now Mr. Obama’s own secretary of defense, warned in a speech last October that in the absence of a nuclear modernization program, even the most modest of which Congress has repeatedly declined to fund, “[a]t a certain point, it will become impossible to keep extending the life of our arsenal, especially in light of our testing moratorium.” Suppose future problems in our nuclear arsenal emerge that cannot be solved without testing? Would our predicament discourage nuclear proliferation — or stimulate it?
The United States has no need to resume testing in order to maintain the reliability of its nuclear arsenal. As the 2002 National Academy of Sciences Report on the CTBT, which included three former lab directors, concluded, “the United States has the technical capabilities to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of its existing nuclear-weapon stockpile under the CTBT, provided that adequate resources are made available to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) nuclear-weapon complex and are properly focused on this task.” Thanks to the Stockpile Stewardship Program, a science-based effort to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear arsenal absent nuclear testing, United States knows far more about its nuclear weapons today than it did when it was testing.
For the foreseeable future, the U.S. and many of our allies rely on our nuclear deterrent. And as long as the U.S. possesses nuclear weapons, they must be — as Mr. Obama recognized in Prague — “safe, secure and effective.” Yet his proposed 2010 budget fails to take the necessary steps to do that.
By neglecting — and in some cases even opposing — essential modernization programs, arms-control proponents are actually undermining the prospect for further reductions of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. As our nuclear weapons stockpile ages and concern about its reliability increases, we will have to compensate by retaining more nuclear weapons than would otherwise be the case. This reality will necessarily influence future arms-control negotiations, beginning with the upcoming Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty follow-on.
Like the bipartisan Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, Kyl and Perle paint a misleading picture of the health of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and its supporting infrastructure. The U.S. nuclear weapons complex remains the most advanced and well-funded on the planet. While the nuclear weapons laboratories must clearly retain the flexibility to perform the full range of laboratory skills, that does not mean it would be prudent now to put new nuclear weapon designs into the stockpile, which might have their own defects, as Perle and Kyl seem to prefer.
For these negotiations, the Russians are insisting on a false linkage between nuclear weapons and missile defenses. They are demanding that we abandon defenses against North Korean or Iranian missiles as a condition for mutual reductions in American and Russian strategic forces. As the president cuts the budget for missile defense and cedes ground to the Russians on our planned defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, we may end up abandoning a needed defense of the U.S. and our European allies from the looming Iranian threat.
The Obama administration has made it clear that it will deploy the national missile defense system intended for Poland and the Czech Republic only if the threat from Iran persists, the system is proven to work, and the system is cost-effective.
At the moment, Iran remains years away from the ability to place a nuclear warhead atop a missile, much less a missile capable of hitting Europe or the United States. Moreover, according to the office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense on testing of Department of Defense weapon systems,
[national missile defense] flight testing to date will not support a high level of confidence in its limited capabilities…additional test data under realistic test conditions is necessary to validate models and simulations and to increase confidence in the ability of these models and simulations to accurately predict system capability.
Given that (1) the threat for which the system is designed does not yet (and may never) exist and (2) the system does not work, common sense would seem to dictate that it not be deployed at this time (if ever).
There is a fashionable notion that if only we and the Russians reduced our nuclear forces, other nations would reduce their existing arsenals or abandon plans to acquire nuclear weapons altogether. This idea, an article of faith of the “soft power” approach to halting nuclear proliferation, assumes that the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be curtailed or abandoned in response to reductions in the American and Russian deterrent forces — or that India, Pakistan or China would respond with reductions of their own.
The “fashionable notion” outlined by Kyl and Perle above exists only in their imagination. Proponents of deep, bilateral U.S.-Russian reductions do not argue that such reductions would cause North Korea or Iran to abandon their nuclear programs.
As the Strategic Posture Commission notes,
at a time when the United States is considering how to reduce nuclear dangers globally, it is essential that it pursue cooperative, binding measures with others….The Commission does not believe that unilateral nuclear reductions by the United States would have any positive impact on countries like North Korea and Iran. But some other nations may not show the nuclear restraint the United States desires or support nonproliferation efforts if the nuclear weapon states take no further agreed steps to decrease their reliance on nuclear arms.
At no point do Kyl or Perle attempt to grapple with this subtler, more refined argument. Instead they happily cite the Commission where it buttresses their ideological predilections, and simply dismiss it on the many occasions where it does not.
This is dangerous, wishful thinking. If we were to approach zero nuclear weapons today, others would almost certainly try even harder to catapult to superpower status by acquiring a bomb or two. A robust American nuclear force is an essential discouragement to nuclear proliferators; a weak or uncertain force just the opposite.
The existing U.S. arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons has not prevented Iran and North Korea from pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Moreover, Kyl and Perle do not bother to explain how such an arsenal is relevant to combating the threat posed by nuclear terrorism, two words which are conspicuously absent from their piece. Nearly every security expert agrees that the threat of nuclear terrorism is the gravest threat to U.S. security. Yet the U.S. nuclear stockpile, which serves as a deterrent against state use of nuclear weapons, is irrelevant to the threat of terrorists using nuclear weapons. There is no terrorist “homeland” to threaten with an overwhelming response. Today, more nuclear weapons mean more opportunities for accidents or theft.
George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn have, on this page, endorsed the distant goal — about which we remain skeptical — of a nuclear-free world. But none of them argues for getting there by neglecting our present nuclear deterrent. The Perry-Schlesinger Commission has provided a path for protecting that deterrent. Congress and the president should follow it, without delay.