Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Obama to Drop Nukes...the Number in Stockpile, That Is

President Obama is preparing the Nuclear Posture Review and Defense Secretary Gates is presenting the President with information regarding questions of US nuclear armament and US strategy pertaining to the circumstances in which it will use nuclear weapons.

Following class discussions about declaratory policy, a recent New York Times article identifies some of the pressing questions regarding the nature of US nuclear policy. In addition to considering the language, if the President establishes or changes the policy at all, whether or not to formally declare US policy is another question to consider.

In speeches that have earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama indicated his commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. While this global transformation won't happen during his tenure, he is taking steps to work toward a reduction of the US nuclear arsenal. The anticipated policy set forth in the Nuclear Posture Review indicates steps toward arsenal reduction, and is in line with his rhetoric. However, the language of the Nuclear Posture Review with regard to declaratory policy may undermine his previous statements. Some critics, both within the Democratic party and elsewhere, cite that if President Obama retains ambiguous language about when the United States will use nuclear weapons, he will be retaining Bush-era policy and weakening his commitment to a non-nuclear world.

The primary debate centers around whether nuclear weapons are to be used only as a deterrent against nuclear attack, or whether they may be used in response to chemical or biological weapons as well. In answering this question, the President must assess the costs, both political and in lives lost, if the US is to use a nuclear weapon. Since he has cut funding for development of new nuclear weapons, specifically low-yield versions, the US retains a powerful although somewhat variable nuclear arsenal. The article references the idea of a Prompt Global Strike system introduced in the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which may offer a non-nuclear alternative should President Obama decide to declare that nuclear weapons are only to be used as a nuclear deterrent.

Even with the challenge of determining what US policy should be, there is debate as to whether this policy should be formally declared. Does a lack of declaration reduce or enhance deterrent effect? If potential enemies know exactly where the US stands, then there is no question as to what US response will be given certain situations. Yet if policy is not strictly defined, the US retains options and flexibility in light of unforeseen threats or attacks.

While deterrence theory is debatable, the reduction in the number of nuclear weapons is a positive step toward the peace that President Obama seeks. Let's just hope that the only nuclear dropping he declares is in the number of weapons in the US arsenal.

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