Courtesy Reuters

Weapons Without Purpose? Nuclear Strategy in the Post-Cold War Era

With the end of the Cold War, most Americans stopped thinking about nuclear weapons. They assumed that such weapons were now of little use and that Washington would soon sensibly wrap up any remaining problems in the nuclear arena. In The Price of Dominance, however, Jan Lodal warns that this complacency is unwarranted and proposes a comprehensive nuclear strategy for the post-Cold War era. Unfortunately, Lodal's recommendations have greater merits than chances of being adopted. And because he treats so many issues in fewer than 150 somewhat repetitive pages, readers receive a great deal of information quickly but without much depth. Those who disagree with him or advocate alternative policies are unlikely to feel that he has dealt adequately with their positions -- let alone be convinced by his.

One point on which Lodal cannot be disputed, however, is his claim that U.S. nuclear policy has drifted since the Cold War. Here he speaks with some authority, having served on the staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and having worked for the Defense Department in the Clinton administration.

The end of the Cold War has brought more changes to world politics than to the American nuclear posture. The 1997 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (start iii) called for the United States and Russia to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals to 2,000-2,500 warheads, but political obstacles have prevented ratification and both countries have retained much larger forces. And although the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty sharply limited missile defenses, the national missile defense (NMD) plans sketched by the Clinton administration would have required the treaty's revision. Now President George W. Bush has called for scrapping that treaty in favor of developing an extensive version of NMD. U.S. officials argue that missile defense is aimed

not against Russia or China, but rather against accidental launches and "rogue" states such as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. But the issue is complicated by the fact that both technically and politically, NMD overlaps with proposed theater missile defense (TMD) systems designed to protect both U.S. forces in the field and U.S. allies, especially in the Middle East and eastern Asia. Furthermore, nuclear weapons are now only one subset of a larger category of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), with terrorists and rogues perhaps more likely to favor chemical or biological weapons because they are easier to obtain -- although all WMD are more easily available now than they once were, thanks to the spread of information, technology, and expertise.

Understanding these problems is difficult in part because the context in which they arise is unique. No modern country has ever dominated the world to the extent that the United States does today. This situation makes it hard to rely on models from the past. It also gives the United States unprecedented possibilities for leadership while simultaneously making it the target of not only extremists around the world but also many ordinary countries resentful of such concentrated power. In this setting, Lodal argues cogently, Washington needs a coherent policy that can cover a broad range of WMD issues in a way acceptable to, even if not welcomed by, Moscow, Beijing, and its allies.

NO MORE MR. TOUGH GUY

At the core of Lodal's proposed "strategic vision" lies a reaffirmation of deterrence rather than defense as the central principle of U.S. nuclear strategy, coupled with an understanding that "no amount of military strength will allow America to deal with [the] new threat alone; a multilateral consensus will be required." The two elements are linked. One reason why current U.S. nuclear policy meets with opposition from Russia and others is that the large number of offensive nuclear weapons that it involves, especially in conjunction with the proposed NMD, might credibly threaten Russia's retaliatory capability, thus subverting the logic and stability of mutual assured destruction. During the Cold War, some strategists considered this offensive nuclear predominance desirable as a way to counter a Soviet conventional threat to Europe. But if such a stance was appropriate in the past, it is no longer relevant today, when U.S. offensive strikes against Russia and China or protracted wars requiring the destruction of vast numbers of military targets are unthinkable.

If policymakers accepted this truth, Lodal notes, the United States could dispense with its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and base its deterrence strategy on a second-strike capability of roughly a thousand highly survivable weapons based on bombers and in submarines. It could also adopt a thin NMD system like the one President Bill Clinton endorsed, a posture that would not threaten Russia's retaliatory capability. Although the United States could proceed toward it over Russian opposition, Washington and Moscow could solidify the gains of this more palatable U.S. policy and improve political relations through concurrent arms-control talks aimed at what Lodal calls "strategic transparency, safety, and stability." Such a package could also provide the political foundations for U.S.-Russian cooperation against nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

Lodal calls for a limited NMD intended not to cope with an all-out Russian or Chinese attack, but to guard against accidents and third-party strikes while removing the possibility that Russia or China might use the threat of a limited nuclear strike as a coercive tactic. He accepts with equanimity the prospect that if Washington went ahead and deployed NMD, Beijing would increase and modernize its strategic missile force to ensure that it could penetrate U.S. defenses. But the book does not discuss whether an improved Chinese capability might allow a Sino-Russian alliance to threaten the U.S. deterrence capability, especially at the low level of U.S. forces Lodal proposes. Moreover, the author thinks robust TMD capabilities can combat many threats and should be deployed in eastern Asia because "China has no legitimate reason to threaten Taiwan or Japan militarily." But he is too quick to gloss over the likely political implications of such a move. Of course TMD would have favorable political effects if it convinced China that military threats against Taiwan would be useless at best. But whether this would, in fact, be China's reaction is unclear and requires more discussion, as does the range of coercive instruments China could employ against Taiwan (such as harassment of shipping) that TMD would not affect.

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

Lodal shares the widespread view that the greatest WMD danger today comes from rogue states. And missile defense, he notes, cannot prevent WMD attack because missiles are only one, and perhaps the least likely, of the delivery systems available. So Lodal advocates supplementing defense and arms control with greatly enhanced intelligence and law enforcement. Accordingly, he calls for international cooperation in these areas, since protecting against the threat of WMD will be almost impossible if the effort is unilateral. Perhaps the most important change needed in America's approach to [WMD] nonproliferation enforcement is to accept the essentiality of organizing coalitions to deal with proliferation.

The United States by itself cannot gather all the necessary intelligence or cut off the flow of material and information to potential proliferators; still less can it unilaterally isolate or exert moral pressure on dangerous regimes.

Indeed, Lodal's argument that U.S. security policy must gain international acceptance and approval to be successful is more important than his specific policy recommendations. The world dominance of the United States makes cooperation both more imperative and more difficult than it was during the Cold War. In that standoff between two superpowers, Washington could pursue its primary mission of deterrence largely unilaterally. But U.S. goals are now broader and achieving them will require working closely with others. Enhancing democracy; maintaining an open economic system; inhibiting conflict among developing nations; encouraging eastern Europe, Russia, and China to develop moderate and rule-governed habits -- all these ambitions, in addition to limiting the dangers of WMD, will require more than simply the efforts of one country. And although American dominance means that others must curry U.S. favor, it also tempts other countries to take a free ride and let the United States provide as many international public goods as possible. It also gives them strong reason to resist an overbearing United States, in typical balance-of-power fashion. Achieving the sort of cooperation Lodal envisages will therefore be tough and will require delicate and sustained U.S. diplomacy informed by a full consideration of other nations' aspirations and fears.

This cooperative diplomacy is unlikely to be forthcoming from Washington. Lodal acknowledges but understates the strength of unilateralist feeling in the United States, often mistakenly interpreted as isolationism. Unilateralist impulses were strong in the Clinton administration, especially during the first term, and have been given still freer reign under President Bush. In the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the United States. In explaining his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, for instance, Bush said, "We will not do anything that harms our economy, because first things first are the people who live in America." It is hard to see how this attitude could produce the kind of cooperative endeavors Lodal favors. Although the Bush administration may seek significant cuts in offensive U.S. nuclear forces, it will probably couple any reductions with a robust missile defense system and a reluctance to enter into international agreements that regulate the U.S. program. This will hardly be enough to secure the assistance of foreign governments, which will cooperate only if Washington makes commitments and builds structures that give others some confidence that the United States is not exploiting its uniquely powerful position.

THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE

If the core of Lodal's argument is intellectually convincing but not politically feasible, other elements can be questioned on their merits. This is true, for example, of his proposal to preserve the option of the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against the WMD facilities of rogue states or terrorists, should conventional force not suffice. Is the danger sufficiently great and the remedy sufficiently efficacious to forgo the advantages of a strongly antinuclear position? Terrorism is not steadily increasing -- terrorist attacks were more common in the 1970s than they are today -- and the Europeans have suffered more attacks than has the United States but have not been as preoccupied with the threat. The current focus on WMD, rogue states, and terrorism may be more a function of the lack of traditional threats to U.S. security than of the magnitude of the actual menaces. Despite its murderous past behavior, North Korea's more recent actions, although contrary to American interests, hardly seem unpredictable or terribly rash. And although Saddam Hussein is unspeakably brutal and miscalculated badly by invading Kuwait, is he really more difficult to deter than Joseph Stalin? The phrase "states of concern" is certainly ungainly, but the Clinton administration was correct to abandon the term "rogues," with its implication that these states are beyond the reach of normal strategies of deterrence and diplomacy.

Even if there is a significant threat, moreover, the utility of nuclear weapons in dealing with it is far from clear. At a minimum, ordering a nuclear attack would require U.S. decision-makers to have confidence that an attack was imminent, that the targets were appropriate and could be destroyed only by nuclear weapons, and that retaliation was not likely. The chance that these conditions would be met is not high enough to justify the preservation of this option. A firm no-first-use pledge, in contrast, would push nuclear weapons further into the background of world politics, an outcome that would benefit the United States, given its enormous superiority across all other dimensions of power.

A middle ground is also worth exploring. If a no-first-use pledge is deemed unacceptable because it might encourage rogues to develop their own weapons without fear of nuclear reprisal (a position that assumes such predators would believe the U.S. commitment), or if the future is seen as too uncertain to rule out any options, then the United States might say nothing at all on the subject, neither taking the pledge nor explicitly reserving the right to first use. Silence runs against the grain of a loquacious government and an academic community that calls for clear policies, but here (as elsewhere) it might be the most sensible course.

GOVERNANCE BY THE UNGOVERNABLE

Unfortunately, by focusing so tightly on the U.S. nuclear posture, Lodal fails to address three crucial broader questions: what influence American policy will have on how others view these weapons, what nuclear weapons can actually accomplish, and how military and foreign policy goals are linked.

Throughout the Cold War, strategists debated inconclusively whether the superpowers were reacting to each other's weapons programs or were driven by internally generated imperatives. It is still unclear whether the United States can set an example for the rest of the world, for good or for ill, and Lodal does not dwell on the topic. Claims by countries such as India that they are not obliged to forgo nuclear options as long as the United States and Russia maintain large arsenals contain a large element of propaganda, but the role of status, standing, and emulation in driving proliferation should not be dismissed. If the United States acts as though nuclear weapons are highly useful, it may convince others of this very point more than it would like. And stressing the need for missile defense implies that even a slight vulnerability could paralyze American foreign policy -- a perception that may undercut deterrence. Of course, others see the United States through their own eyes and with their own interests, and so predicting what they will take as signs of weakness, strength, or wisdom is notoriously difficult. Even if the United States does try to set an example, what others learn may be quite different from what Washington thinks it is teaching.

Lodal also skirts the question of what nuclear weapons can achieve, perhaps because the debates on this subject have been almost theological in their intensity and their paucity of evidence. Do nuclear weapons make it easier to maintain rather than alter the status quo? Under what conditions is this true and what are the exceptions? How is resolve conveyed in today's world? Do nuclear weapons inhibit the use of lower levels of violence or make the world safe for conventional war? Does having a large nuclear arsenal give the United States additional influence? All policy recommendations such as Lodal's rest on answers to such questions, but they are rarely made explicit, possibly because it is so hard to defend them with evidence.

A final issue that Lodal's book might have explored is the relationship between nuclear weapons and foreign policy, since the former should serve the latter and not the other way around. Defining the national interest expansively and intervening in areas of contention, for example, has the unfortunate effect of making the United States a target of dissatisfied countries and groups around the world. To the extent that there is a Chinese threat to the United States, after all, it arises not from any direct conflict or menace to vital U.S. interests (such as that which the Soviets posed during the Cold War) but rather from the American commitment to Taiwan, which is a matter of choice rather than necessity. NATO's expansion and concomitant military commitments, similarly, have hardly been required by traditional conceptions of security. In designing a post-Cold War nuclear strategy, therefore, one must start by asking not only what nuclear weapons can do, but what the United States wants.

Lodal's concluding chapter is titled "Leadership and Consistency," but it is doubtful that a high degree of either can be expected from a country that places a low priority on foreign policy and in which power is highly diffused. When a visiting U.S. official once tried to explain some confusing American policies to Charles de Gaulle, the general is said to have remarked, "The United States must be a difficult country to govern." The absence of an overriding threat has magnified this difficulty and rendered commitments that span administrations increasingly problematic. During the Cold War, the American style of governance kept U.S. policy open to allies' concerns and thereby facilitated Western unity, but today this style is likely to inhibit the kind of responsible and steady leadership that Lodal calls for. His prescriptions merit serious consideration, but if he could not persuade his colleagues in the Clinton administration to adopt them, there is little reason to expect the new team to sign on. The best one can hope for is that his book will provoke thought and discussion on this vital issue in U.S. foreign policy.