U.S. Needs a New Nuclear Weapons Strategy

The next U.S. president must focus on fashioning a coherent national security doctrine.

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Louis René Beres is a professor of International Law at Purdue University. Born in Zürich, Switzerland at the end of World War II, he is the author of many major books and articles dealing with world politics, law, literature, and philosophy.

Whoever wins the upcoming election, there will be no more urgent policy concern than our country's strategic doctrine. Oddly, despite growing and plainly serious mega-security threats to the United States, including conspicuously robust expansions of Russia's nuclear arsenal, neither candidate has really paid such doctrine much attention. True, the third debate did finally touch upon certain conceivable nuclear threats from Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, but these references were to specifically isolated and singular perils. They were not expressed in terms of any systematically general and comprehensive American nuclear strategy.

Whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney prevails on election day, our next president should understand that nuclear weapons are not the core problem. Taken by themselves, weapons are never more or less destabilizing simply because of their particular capacity to destroy. Nuclear weapons are never innately good, and never innately evil.

In principle, although he has lately been less open on this point, Obama continues to favor "a world free of nuclear weapons." This high-minded objective, of course, is both improbable and undesirable. It could never happen. It should never happen.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

If, somehow, a nuclear-free world were actually a feasible goal, the net result could still be catastrophic or even existential levels of American vulnerability.

Whether it will be Obama or Romney, the next president of the United States will need to work diligently toward a more plausible and worthwhile objective. This should be a world that is substantially less hospitable to all forms of "total war" and nuclear terror. What will be needed is an energetic presidential focus on fashioning a coherent U.S. strategic doctrine.

Ad hoc responses to individual threats will not be enough. In essence, we require a codified plan for national security that could deal capably not only with various jihadist adversaries, both state and substate, but also with prospective and still-formidable nuclear foes in Russia, North Korea, China, Iran, and even a possibly post-coup Pakistan.

Such a plan offers a fine and purposeful net. But only those who cast, can catch.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Inevitably, U.S. nuclear strategy must be seen as a bipartisan problem. Looking back to "solve" this problem, history will ultimately reveal certain indispensable meanings. During the 1950s, the United States first began to institute various doctrines of nuclear deterrence. At that time, the world was tightly bipolar, and the unambiguous enemy was the Soviet Union. Then, American national security was premised on a strategic policy called "massive retaliation." Over time, especially during the Kennedy years, that stance was modified by something we had reassuringly called "flexible response."

Today, a far more complex world reveals multiple and interpenetrating axes of potentially violent conflict. There are almost four times as many countries as had existed in 1945. In this expressly multipolar world, Russia, which earlier in the post-Soviet era had assumed diminished importance in American strategic calculations, is once again an authentic security concern.

Now, President Vladimir Putin is apprehensive about planned U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe. Such active defenses, in his view, would threaten the basic deterrence logic of "mutual vulnerability." Still, it appears that Obama and Romney would both favor an expansion of such American missile defenses, even though it could provide little if any additional security.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

What should the next American president do about nuclear weapons? Here are some precise answers.