A Pretty Poor Posture for a Superpower

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During the Cold War, peace was supported by the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” which simply meant that each side maintained second strike capability, thereby deterring nuclear war. The Antiballistic Missile Treaty and other treaties limiting the use of offensive nuclear forces were the underpinning of this doctrine. They were also the basis for ending the nuclear arms race.

Now, the Bush administration has moved to a new nuclear doctrine described by one commentator as “unilateral assured destruction.”

Should the recently leaked Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR, become official policy, we can expect nuclear weapons to spread around the world.


We will live in a far more dangerous world, and the United States will be much less secure.

According to reports describing the NPR, Russia is still a possible target, but potentially by offensive forces rather than second-strike nuclear forces. China also could be a target, with a “military confrontation over the status of Taiwan” a possible rationale for a nuclear strike.

The NPR goes even further. It explicitly lists Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran and North Korea as potential targets for U.S. nuclear forces, putting aside the ambiguity employed in previous reports. One thing--perhaps the only thing--that these five states have in common, however, is that all are nonnuclear parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

For 30 years, this treaty has kept nuclear weapons from spreading all over the world, a development that would be devastating to U.S. security.

The problem is, however, that in 1978, to bolster the treaty, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union formally pledged never to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear countries that were parties to the treaty except in the case of an attack in alliance with a nuclear weapon state. (No exception was made for responding to chemical or biological attacks.)

This pledge, joined by France and China, was reiterated in 1995.

And in what could be the most reasonable request in the history of international relations, in exchange for agreeing to never acquire nuclear weapons, 182 nonnuclear nations asked that the five nuclear weapons states promise never to attack them with such weapons. This was done in April 1995 in connection with a U.N. Security Council resolution.


But the Pentagon plan undermines the credibility of that pledge, which underpins the nonproliferation treaty.

Further, the basic implication of the NPR--that the U.S. reserves the right to target any nation with nuclear weapons whenever it chooses to do so--is itself likely to increase the risk of the nuclear weapons proliferation. If a country believes it’s falling out of favor with Washington, what is the first thing it is likely to do? A quote attributed to Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes provides some insight: “Before one challenges the United States, one must first acquire nuclear weapons.”

Finally, the NPR also appears to set forth a 40-year plan for developing and acquiring new nuclear weapons. It reportedly calls for new air, sea and land launch platforms to be developed and deployed in 2020, 2030 and 2040, and it calls for new low-yield and variable-yield warheads that probably would require nuclear testing. Maintaining a permanent rationale for a robust U.S. nuclear arsenal and a resumption of nuclear testing flies in the face of vital U.S. commitments.

These matters are far too important for the administration to decide on its own. There must be a full public debate, in Congress, on the future of our nuclear deterrent and the nuclear nonproliferation regime.


Robert S. McNamara was secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1967. Thomas Graham Jr., the special representative of the president for arms control and disarmament during the Clinton administration, is president of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security and author of “Disarmament Sketches,” due in May from the University of Washington Press.