From a global security standpoint, escalating events in Egypt and Syria are only the tip of the iceberg. Over the next several years, the United States will also have to deal with a steadily expanding number of other global "hot spots." Some of these flash points could involve the threat or use of nuclear weapons.
How shall we best respond to this significant threat? In order to fully maintain American security in these volatile circumstances, President Barack Obama will need to garner the indispensable benefits of a newly-refined and robust national nuclear strategy.
On its face, this seems like a perfectly obvious and unremarkable observation. Nonetheless, from the moment that he first entered the White House, this president has made it clear that he opposes all nuclear weapons. Ignoring post World War II history, when such weapons likely prevented a third world war between the two superpowers, he steadfastly maintains that they are inherently corrosive and destabilizing. Indeed, for Mr. Obama, there seemingly can be no more high-minded objective than creating "a world free of nuclear weapons."
Plainly, however, global denuclearization is an improbable, and possibly inconceivable, goal. Selectively, at least, it is also undesirable.
For some states, nuclear weapons may be all that stand between continued survival and annihilation. Without nuclear weapons, for example, Israel, a country smaller than Lake Michigan, and surrounded by more than 20 dedicated enemy states, would no longer be able to deter existential aggressors. Deprived of nuclear weapons, it could quickly be stripped of any residually meaningful way to defend itself.
America, too, may now be placing itself at unnecessary risk. With too deteriorated an arsenal of nuclear weapons, the U.S. could ultimately find itself without a credible deterrent, against a variety of both present and future nuclear adversaries. In this connection, one must first understand that a credible nuclear deterrence posture always involves more than an assembled arsenal of highly destructive warheads. Much more.
Before it is too late, President Obama's declared goal should cease being "a world free of nuclear weapons," but rather a world that would be less susceptible to eruptions of total war and megaterror. The national strategic objective, therefore, ought no longer be a concocted or idealized world. America needs a nuanced and sophisticated nuclear doctrine, not a thoroughly fictive vision, not one that remains premised on the stubbornly banal syntax of amateur thought.
We require a finely-codified plan for national security, a plan that can deal capably with various jihadi adversaries, both state and sub-state, and also with prospective and still-formidable nuclear foes in Russia, North Korea, China, Iran and, possibly, even a post-coup Pakistan. Whether the White House willingly acknowledges it or not, the world's first nuclear war could begin not in the Middle East (where it is fairly expected, because of Iran's unimpeded nuclearization), but in Southwest Asia. In both the Middle East and Southwest Asia, we will need a substantially upgraded strategy for deterring nuclear terrorism.
At least in part, this strategy should involve better worldwide security for fissile material, such as highly-enriched uranium. There are already clear and unassailable indications that al-Qaida has been seeking nuclear weapons for several years. Following earlier disclosures about Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan and his elaborate network for selling nuclear secrets, we know also that there exists a functioning black market for smuggling weapons-usable nuclear material.
During the 1950s, the United States first began to institute various formal doctrines of nuclear deterrence. At that time, at least geopolitically, the world was a much simpler place. Global power distributions were then tightly bipolar; our indisputable enemy was the Soviet Union.
At that time, American national strategy was founded on a policy of “massive retaliation.” Later, especially during the Kennedy years, this narrowly-circumscribed stance was modified by “flexible response.”
Today, a much more complex strategic landscape reveals multiple, inter-penetrating, and sometimes synergistic axes of conflict. There are now almost four times as many countries as existed back in 1945. In this expresslymultipolar world, Russia is once again a justifiably major American security concern. Initially, in the earlier post-Soviet era, the Russian nuclear stance had been prematurely downgraded as a prospective threat to the United States.
Understandably, perhaps, Russian President Vladimir Putin remains fearful of possibly still-planned U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe. In his view, a perspective that actually exhibits a standard or "classical" idea of nuclear deterrence, such active defenses would jeopardize the stability of our changing balance of power. This is because the inherent logic of nuclear deterrence (Manhattan Project physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had once spoken of the superpowers as "two scorpions in a bottle") is based firmly on the idea of "mutual vulnerability."
To shape an authentically improved U.S, strategic doctrine, President Obama will need to reconsider critically fundamental decisions on nuclear targeting. Among other things, any such reconsideration would examine certain basic differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (“countervalue” targeting), and the targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (“counterforce” targeting).
Originally, the essence of “massive retaliation” and its corollary, Mutually Assured Destruction, had been counter value targeting. Presently, in those relatively promising scenarios where enemy rationality might still be reliably assumed, effective U.S. deterrence could once again require recognizable policies of counter city targeting. In those unprecedented circumstances where we might need to face non-rational and nuclear state adversaries, however, gainful deterrence calculations could prove markedly more difficult.
America's strategic doctrine will have to address still-impending options for American preemption, known in law as "anticipatory self-defense," as well as more systematic methods for distinguishing adversaries (state and sub-state) according to whether they are rational, irrational or “mad.” Among these three discrete adversarial designations, there exist very consequential and discernible differences. This refined U.S. strategic doctrine will also need to measure and configure certain vital components of nuclear deterrence, active defense, cyberdefense and cyberwarfare.
As codified at Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution (the "Supremacy Clause"), and at several corollary decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court (especially, The Paquete Habana, 1900), international law is integrally part of the law of the United States. We will, therefore, have to examine such more-or-less intersecting elements of doctrine within the wider and more subtly layered strata of pertinent treaties, customs and legal principles. This jurisprudential examination should include authoritative criteria for identifying and justifying "anticipatory self-defense," and for undertaking nonproliferation regime enforcement.
Within the Department of Defense, and the larger U.S. defense community, a protracted lack of emphasis on nuclear strategy and tactics may already have left our military unprepared for certain uniquely threatening scenarios. To suitably confront this unsustainable deficiency, one generated, in part, by our continuing application of mistaken strategies to wars that involve nation-building, the president needs to commission a special and largely re-imagined Nuclear Posture Review.
This hard-nosed and dialectical assessment should emphasize, inter alia, new program designs for advanced nuclear weapons; further modernization of needed nuclear infrastructures and warheads; and more consciously precise calibrations of American nuclear strategy and tactics to different levels and sites of notable enemy threat. Most dangerous of all, perhaps, will be the conspicuously urgent threat of nuclear terrorism.
In the final analysis, the main thrust of our national security policy efforts must be determinedly intellectual. Even in much simpler times, the highest achievements of U.S. strategic doctrine always managed to emerge not in the triumph of mind over matter, but of mind over mind.
Louis René Beres, professor of political science and international law at Purdue University, is the author of many core books and articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war, including several very early works on nuclear terrorism.
Thomas G. McInerney, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, served as assistant vice chief of staff of the Air Force, deputy chief of staff for operations and intelligence for Pacific Air Forces; and vice commander in chief of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. He is co-author, with Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely of "Endgame: The Blueprint for Victory in the War on Terror."
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