Courtesy Reuters
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: From the Archive: Nuclear Weapons
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A Nuclear Posture for Today

A THREAT TRANSFORMED

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a dramatic geopolitical shift that should have led to major changes in the nuclear posture of the United States. The policy reviews undertaken by the Clinton administration in 1994 and the Bush administration in 2002, however, led to only minor alterations. As a result, the United States lacks a convincing rationale for its current nuclear force structure and for the policies that guide the management of its nuclear weapons enterprise.

The end of the Cold War did not mean that the United States could eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. Their existence is a reality, and the knowledge required to make them is widespread. But over the last decade, the nature of the nuclear threat has fundamentally changed, from large-scale attack to the use of one or a few devices by a rogue nation or subnational group against the United States or one of its allies. Countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons--by slowing the spread of nuclear capabilities among states, assuring that nuclear devices do not get into the hands of terrorist groups, and protecting existing stockpiles--has thus become as high a priority as deterring major nuclear attacks.

Unfortunately, the current U.S. nuclear posture does not reflect this shift. Washington still maintains a large nuclear arsenal designed for the Cold War, and it fails to take into account the current impact of its nuclear policies on those of other governments. In fact, with its overwhelming conventional military advantage, the United States does not need nuclear weapons for either war fighting or for deterring conventional war. It should therefore scale back its nuclear activity significantly. Policymakers should sharply decrease the number of warheads deployed with active military forces and make U.S. stockpile activities (of active and retired warheads and nuclear material) more transparent, setting a security standard for other nations. The United States should not, however, abandon effective nuclear forces, and it should even leave open the possibility of certain limited kinds of nuclear

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