Jeffrey LewisThe Pivot

There is, ultimately, going to be a post from me about the details of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review — but the details are probably not what is important. So, let me start with that.

What is important is that the NPR ledes with the notion that the priority goal is to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

That, conceptually, is an important shift. There have always been two views of nuclear weapons: One view holds that nuclear weapons are just another munition, albeit larger, in a modern armory. Ours our good; theirs are bad. Another view, however, is that nuclear weapons represent a shared danger that ultimately compels us to cooperate even with our adversaries.

The Nuclear Posture Review places the deterrent value of nuclear weapons in this much larger context of confronting the shared danger posed by the existence of nuclear weapons, including nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. If I understand Josh correctly, this is what he intends to convey with the image of a tunnel dug from two ends.

Although I will focus on the nitty-gritty details in a bit, none of that will matter a year from now. I suspect we will look back at this period — the release of the Nuclear Posture Review, the signing of the Prague Treaty, the Nuclear Security Summit and the NPT Review conference — and say that this was a pivot point, the moment when we began talking about nuclear weapons on terms that are different from those of the Cold War. The implication of this conceptual shift isn’t fully realized in any of the documents.

But that is usually the case. Historical documents are always less impressive in the details than in memory. Try looking at NSDM 6, Nixon’s decision to seek ratification the NPT. You’ll be surprised at how tentatively he embraced the notion of nonproliferation. It is a turning point, nonetheless.

And, since we have a President whose rhetoric references the civil rights movement, it is important to remember that the Emancipation Proclamation freed only those slaves held in states in rebellion. The 2010 NPR is not nearly as important as the Emancipation Proclamation, obviously, but I still remember how odd I felt when I realized that the details of that document fell so far short of its historical importance.

So, the details are interesting, but I suspect that the important development is how our narrative about the role of nuclear weapons has changed — and for the better. That’s hard to see in the details, love them though I do.


  1. FSB

    Jeffrey, with respect, our dialog has not changed much, but it is good that the government has finally admitted that nuclear weapons are for deterrence, “fundamentally”.

    Is this a turning point or a no-brainer admitted 50 years too late? Maybe both.

    I am disappointed that Obama did virtually nothing that he promised us when we voted for him re. security: de-alerting, no untested missile defenses, halting space weaponization etc. etc.

    Yes, parts of the NPR sound really sweet, but the details are horrible.

    In the final measure, I don’t think it will be seen as a turning point — it will be ignored.

  2. Greg R. Lawson (History)

    You may be right that this is a pivot, but if so, then should not the paradoxical counterpoint at least be raised that nuclear weapons and deterrence have kept a lid on Great Power conflict (ie. world wars) since their one and only actual use?

    I think the details are troubling because it does nothing to really prevent non-proliferation (perhaps, next week’s conference will result in something concrete on this front). That said, the philosophical argument over nuclear weapons is not truly settled.

    I find these recent statements from Thomas Schelling rather insightful:

    “If a “world without nuclear weapons” means no mobilization bases, there can be no such world. Even starting in 1940 the mobilization base was built. And would minimizing mobilization potential serve the purpose ? To answer this requires working through various scenarios involving the expectation of war, the outbreak of war, and the conduct of war. That is the kind of analysis I haven’t seen.

    A crucial question is whether a government could hide weapons-grade fissile material from any possible inspection verification. Considering that enough plutonium to make a bomb could be hidden in the freezing compartment of my refrigerator or to evade radiation detection could be hidden at the bottom of the water in a well, I think only the fear of a whistle-blower could possibly make success at all questionable. I believe that a “responsible” government would make sure that fissile material would be available in an international crisis or war itself. A responsible government must at least assume that other responsible governments will do so.

    We are so used to thinking in terms of thousands, or at least hundreds, of nuclear warheads that a few dozen may offer a sense of relief. But if, at the outset of what appears to be a major war, or the imminent possibility of major war, every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely, there will be at least covert frantic efforts, or perhaps purposely conspicuous efforts, to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible. And what then?

    In summary, a “world without nuclear weapons” would be a world in which the United States, Russia, Israel, China, and half a dozen or a dozen other countries would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems, and would have prepared targets to preempt other nations’ nuclear facilities, all in a high-alert status, with practice drills and secure emergency communications. Every crisis would be a nuclear crisis, any war could become a nuclear war. The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.”

  3. Josh (History)

    Re: the tunnel simile.

    Another way of putting it is the document plants a foot in each of two different realms, with different purposes and mindsets. But the weight rests mostly atop the nonproliferation foot, like so.

    So yes, it’s a pivot, it’s a tunnel dug from both ends, and it’s a big naked man made of Carrara marble. Most of all, though, it’s a speech made in Prague.

    Now, let me describe to you the trajectory we need to be on. First, the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies –- including the Czech Republic. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.

    That’s where the dichotomy originates — when the foot moved, if you like. And now, after a year’s worth of interagency sweat, the NPR seems to have come out pretty much along the lines articulated one year and one day previously. Call it the shift of the hips. Slowly, slowly, the trajectory of policy is changing.

  4. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I totally agree. A world without nuclear weapons is a world where nations operate at near parity, with ‘little’ price to pay for commencing hostilities. It lowers the threshold for conventional war, which throws the warring states into the logic you describe. I’m sure the disarmament community has thought of this …. Have you? …. And I’m sure they have something in mind in the form of conventional forces control in order to alleviate this …. Right? I mean they would not want to throw the world back to 1914 without having some means of dealing with a crisis in the name of feeling relief that no nuclear weapons were on alert at the time. Surely they must put some thought into what kind of world they would create beyond placating their sense of morality, or just doing their jobs. … Right?

  5. anon

    “What is important is that the NPR ledes with the notion that the priority goal is to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.”

    Well, thanks for telling us what important.

    Have you bothered to notice – it’s not working?

  6. anon

    Should America be attacked with nuclear or chem/bio weapons does anyone think that just because someone wrote some words on a piece of paper some time back that America won’t respond with all appropriate measures?

    We’re not going to ask the damn lawyers for an opinion.

    Come up for air – there’s a real world out here.

  7. FSB
  8. Carey Sublette

    I suggest that Schelling’s comments, while bringing up a valid point (“going to zero” creates unique problems and may potentially be less stable than “going down to a few”) reveal significant flaws in his insight.

    In particular “hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons and mobilize or commandeer delivery systems” is nothing at all like the “hair trigger launch” scenario we face today. In fact the time scales involved, and the implications of “triggering” are so radically different, that the Schelling’s use of the phrase seems wildly inappropriate. (I also note that measures to redress his concerns are easily imagined, to suppose none would be implemented is absurd.)

    But keeping our minds in the present historical moment: we are a very, very long way from having to worry about stability in a world “without nuclear weapons”. Getting arsenals down to, say, 100 weapons in monitored storage, requiring a day or so to deploy, would avoid all of Schelling’s fears, but is a scheme so far removed from current proposals that it is hard to imagine when it might ever be seriously considered.