From what the press is saying about the president’s soon-to-be-released five-year review of U.S. nuclear weapons requirements and policies (a.k.a. the Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR), a good deal is being made about very little. Today’s headlines are screaming that the president has decided that the U.S. will no longer threaten to use nuclear weapons against Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) states that are compliant with their NPT obligations and that themselves lack nuclear weapons. This sounds dramatic but essentially means we would not consider threatening to use nuclear weapons against states we never had any intention of ever targeting, such as Brazil. On the other hand, we still could use them against Iran, North Korea, China, or Russia. And there is an additional hedge, as the New York Times reports:
White House officials said the new strategy would include the option of reconsidering the use of nuclear retaliation against a biological attack, if the development of such weapons reached a level that made the United States vulnerable to a devastating strike.
Bottom line: This new, “dramatic” nuclear-policy change hardly changes anything.
Meanwhile, the papers are reporting that the NPR sidesteps what to do, if anything, about our short-range tactical warheads based in Europe and retains the U.S. right to use nuclear weapons first (something nuclear critics tried to change but apparently failed to). The review also keeps our nuclear weapons on alert and calls for major funding of nuclear weapons modernization (again, positions that some in the administration tried to challenge during the review). Yet these decisions are hardly grabbing headlines.
All of which raises the following question: Why did the president spend extra months to conduct the review, delay it several times (and in so doing raise doubts about his resolve to use and maintain our nuclear arsenal to protect our interests), only, in the end, to modify our policies so slightly? One possibility is that it was intentional, that he let the most radical proposals of those within his administration be floated to show where he would have liked to have gone but sees as too politically risky to venture. The other is that the delays and leaks were not planned at all but were rather a reflection of his administration’s difficulties with these issues. Either way, though, it is not a great look.
– Henry D. Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.