In Orwell’s 1984, Oceania’s citizens must practice doublethink to avoid Big Brother’s Room 101. According to the all-powerful Party’s newspeak, doublethink is “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them—cognitive dissonance, in other words. In the realm of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation, doublethink has slipped the bounds of Orwell’s pages and now afflicts the Obama administration. The Administration’s belief in nuclear disarmament and strengthening nonproliferation regimes—pursuing both goals simultaneously—qualifies as doublethink.
In his early efforts as President, Obama has made a strong commitment to nuclear abolition while also strengthening the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Secretary of State Clinton recently argued in Foreign Policy that nonproliferation’s success relies in large measure on the willingness of the United States and the other nuclear-armed powers to “reduce their nuclear stockpiles.” Yet the twin goals of disarmament and nonproliferation are in manifest contradiction; dismantling the U.S. strategic and tactical arsenals will probably undermine nonproliferation efforts.
Nuclear weapons’ destructiveness makes them superb means of deterrence. Deterrence, however, rests on credibility. In turn, credibility rests on capability (the ability to take an action) and intent (the willingness to do so). If adversaries or allies do not believe the U.S. can or will actually use nuclear weapons, then credibility and, by extension deterrence, fails. The United States is pledged to defend allies in NATO and East Asia from attack using, if necessary, nuclear weapons (a posture called extended deterrence). This security blanket covering U.S. allies will increasingly wear thin as the arsenal diminishes. To make deterrence credible, arsenal size matters. Few will be scared or comforted by a United States that possesses a handful of clumsy, inaccurate, high-yield weapons that no one believes it will launch. Adversaries become emboldened and allies become nervous: both may seek weapons in response. This is not theoretical posturing: the French developed its force de frappe because President Charles de Gaulle did not believe the United States would aid NATO countries if the USSR attacked.
Once weakened, how does extended deterrence affect nonproliferation? Following the Soviet Union’s collapse, many international relations scholars predicted U.S. Cold War security guarantees would disappear. Indeed, John Mearsheimer argued the U.S. should actually encourage countries like Germany and the Ukraine to acquire nuclear weapons and fill any resulting security vacuum. Only the continuation of U.S. commitment to extended deterrence prevented this proliferation. Disarmament would have a similar effect if the U.S. decided to abrogate its security treaty with Japan. The day Japan realizes the U.S. can longer threaten credible nuclear retaliation against China or North Korea, is the same day the security treaty becomes a hollow piece of paper.
Disarmament could provoke proliferation in ways other than undermining extended deterrence guarantees and unnerving allies. As deployed weapons and stockpiles dwindle, the remaining weapons become marginally more valuable. Other than the U.S. and Russia, other nuclear powers have relatively small arsenals. For example, China has about 20 silo-based weapons completely susceptible to a U.S. “counterforce” strike. Counterforce entails striking an enemy’s nuclear weapons instead of holding large cities hostage. A U.S. counterforce strategy—using precision guided, low-yield weapons—is conceivable against China, North Korea, (in the future) Iran, and future potential competitors and enemies. Few believe the U.S. will actually kill millions of people in retaliation for their government’s misdeeds. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Keir Lieber and Daryl Press argue the U.S. could destroy China’s arsenal causing only 700 civilian casualties, a number “comparable to the number of civilians killed since 2006 in Pakistan by U.S. drone strikes.”
Significant U.S. disarmament will forfeit this counterforce capability—a capability which all (except Russia) now must take seriously. This will spur more attempts to build small nuclear forces, more Irans and more North Koreas. A tiny, unsophisticated arsenal will tend to encourage aggressive states, undeterred by a small U.S. arsenal. The U.S. will no longer have the ability to “disarm” an enemy with a few weapons, making them more attractive. As they have in the past, countries will run huge risks, enduring international condemnation and sanctions, to acquire weapons. Once again, disarmament undercuts nonproliferation.
Reducing nuclear forces and nonproliferation are both worthy goals. Indeed, the United States could cut much of its high-yield weapons, which only exist to threaten a mass slaughter of civilians that America is unlikely to ever undertake. The NPT and other nonproliferation efforts have helped restrict membership to the nuclear club. But beyond a certain point these two goals come into conflict. By undermining confidence in extended deterrence and counterforce, disarmament makes owning nuclear weapons more attractive to adversaries and allies. The Obama administration should end this exercise in doublethink and promise realistic reduction in nuclear weapons rather than the dangerous fantasy of complete abolition.