The Duck of Minerva

Enabling proliferation

3 April 2007

What do other states think of America’s nuclear arsenal and strategic posture?

Defense analyst Lewis Dunn, with coauthors Gregory Giles, Jeffrey Larsen, and Thomas Skypek, recently completed a project sponsored by the Advanced Systems and Concepts Office (ASCO) of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency that looked at this and related questions. Their report is available on the web: Foreign Perspectives on U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture (warning: long pdf).

On March 20, Dunn presented the findings at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Through his interviews with foreign individuals, he found that many saw the U.S. shifting from a policy of nuclear deterrence towards a policy of nuclear use or preemption. Foreign perceptions following the U.S. articulation in 2001 of the “new nuclear triad” are that the U.S. is lowering its nuclear threshold.

Dunn characterized this as a foreign “misperception” of the US posture.

Is it?

Apparently, foreigners gathered this impression based on US development of “bunker buster” bombs and renewed emphasis on ballistic missile defenses. Oh, and they are not crazy about American development of “low-yield” weapons. Altogether, some respondents apparently told Dunn that US policy was undermining the Nonproliferation Treaty — and generally undercutting arms control.

Dunn notes that no senior US official has made a policy statement on nuclear weapons since 2002, which means that it would be a good time for the US to clarify its nuclear posture. Put differently, Dunn wants a clearer declaratory policy, which I would emphasize can be quite distinct from an operational deployment (and employment) policy.

Russia and China are particularly leary of BMD, which is sold as a US reaction to nuclear proliferation. Other states are apparently becoming more accepting of US missile defense plans. Dunn made a point about the Chinese and Russian reactions that should be obvious to anyone who has thought about nuclear deterrence — and knows anything about the security dilemma: “these countries’ strategic modernization plans are influenced by U.S. policy decisions.”

Dunn concluded by calling for greater efforts at dialogue with China and Russia, as well as with the rest of the world:

[T]he U.S. needs to expand its nuclear debate and agenda and engage in international dialogue to discuss issues such as the relevance of nuclear disarmament and how to define an environment that is needed for the elimination of nuclear weapons to occur.

Do you think he really means “irrelevance“?