Julian Borger has a post up on the Nuclear Posture Review, in which I liken choosing among the two options on declaratory policy to the choice between plague and cholera.
Chris Jones over at PONI literally doesn’t understand the argument, which leads me to think that if a smart guy like Chris can be so confused, then I should explain more.
My preferred option for declaratory policy is to state the purpose for possessing nuclear weapons, rather than speculating on when a future President might use them:
The United States maintains nuclear weapons to deter and, if necessary, respond to nuclear attacks against ourselves, our forces, or our friends and allies.
My reason for phrasing it this way, as Josh Pollack captured, is to avoid the “what-if questions meant to exhume sinister contradictions” in our nuclear policies. That’s much better than I said it.
The authors of the NPR appear to have internalized this message — to talk about the purpose, rather than speculate on use — but the two options for the final document, as described by Borger and Josh Rogin, are very unsatisfying to me.
The first choice is to state that the the primary purpose is deterrence. This, in my opinion, merely draws attention to any secondary purposes, which is precisely the conversation to be avoided. It’s better not to have a declaratory policy that raises an obvious question unless you know the answer to that question in advance. And it seems to me that no good can come of answering what “secondary” purposes might exist. The fact is that decisions about the size, composition and posture of our nuclear forces are all made in the service of deterrence. Anything else is a lesser included case that is not a fit subject for discussion in polite company.
The second choice is to say that our goal is for some future President to someday be able state that the “sole purpose” is deterrence. (For the record, I am not wedded to the adjective “sole.”) To articulate the preferred outcome as a goal, rather than a description of current policy, is is almost, though not quite, as bad.
This is a simple question: Why do we have these awful things? Setting sole purpose as a “goal” leaves this question unanswered. We know what the purpose is not (solely deterrence), but not what is. We are left to guess at which purposes might prevent the Obama Administration from answering this simple question forthrightly. Rather than lamely admitting that the posture (and the posture review) is in some sense a disappointment, one might as well defend the role of extending nuclear deterrence to conventional attacks against allies.
A second downside of admitting that the reality of a nuclear policy falls short of our ideal is the degree to which it implicitly undermines the goal set in Prague. The President committed the United States to seek the “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” The logical corollary of that statement, is that all other threats — including those to our allies — could be met with what Bundy, Crowe and Drell called “prudent conventional readiness.” The argument, especially in Paris, has been that it is easy for the United States to seek a world without nuclear weapons given our vast conventional military power. If the United States today doesn’t have enough conventional capabilities to relegate nuclear weapons to the task of deterring nuclear attacks, no country ever will.
Still, it must be admitted that “sole purpose” is an admirable goal for US nuclear weapons policy, even if admitting that the reality of US nuclear policy falls short of it makes the Prague Speech look a little naive.
Yet, I do not understand why we can’t simply state that the purpose of the weapons narrowly, while declining to speculate on their use. After all, as a practical matter, the United States maintains nuclear weapons today for purpose of deterring, and if necessary responding to, nuclear attacks against the United States and our allies. Any other scenario is, at best, a lesser-included case.
The President should just say so.
All this is terribly disappointing, but fortunately it is not the sort of disappointment that can’t be overcome with a stiff Manhattan at the University Club with an old friend. I guess in that way it really isn’t like plague or cholera. Until tomorrow …