The Duck of Minerva

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Nuclear news

October 29, 2009

I’m beginning to think that a number of important people in the Obama administration must have read the Keir Lieber and Daryl Press piece in Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006, which explained burgeoning U.S. nuclear primacy, and have taken seriously the potential risks of primacy.

Just more than 10 months since George W. Bush left office, the new administration in Washington has already taken a couple of important steps to reassure other states that the U.S. is trying to reduce the risks.

Duck readers may recall that Bill blogged about the Lieber-Press thesis two and a half years ago — and then Dan mentioned a practical application in summer 2008. Also, I typically assign the reading in my film class during the week we view “Dr. Strangelove.”

Nonetheless, I should briefly explain the argument for those who are just joining the discussion. Essentially, the scholars claim that the U.S. is undermining classic notions of deterrence by pursuing nuclear first-strike capabilities versus Russia, China and other lesser nuclear powers. They point to modernization of various American weapons, as well as deterioration (or negligence) of potential rival arsenals. New burrowing weapons and missile defense technologies contribute to the problem as they magnify nuclear war-fighting capabilities.

If Leiber and Press are right, the U.S. might think the unthinkable in some future political crisis and attempt a “splendid” nuclear first strike against a weaker foe — including Russia. Even if the U.S. is not tempted to attack, potential adversaries might believe that Washington could attack. Therefore, such a state might think it has to “use ’em or lose ’em” and would thus be tempted to launch a preemptive strike in a crisis situation. Nuclear primacy isn’t good for crisis stability, even if its advocates think that it might provide the U.S. with tangible advantages.

Arguably, policy signals and moves by the Obama administration reduce the risks of nuclear primacy somewhat dramatically. Most prominently, several months ago, the President called out “clearly and with conviction, America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” The U.S. is a long way from eliminating weapons, of course, but embracing an abolitionist goal stands in stark contrast to the idea of nuclear primacy. Obviously, concrete followup would be needed to ameliorate the risks outlined by Leiber and Press. The signal itself may have some value.

More tangibly, this past month the administration announced that it was scrapping the Bush-era plans to deploy extensive missile defenses in Europe. While the planned system was ostensibly designed to reduce threats from Iranian nuclear missiles, most Eastern European (and Russian) foreign policy elites saw the defenses as a way to reduce Russian nuclear threats. Missile defenses might be virtually useless against a large Russian missile attack, but they arguably have much greater utility against a so-called “ragged” retaliatory capability that would exist after an American counterforce attack. Again, Lieber and Press specifically point to missile defenses as an element of American nuclear primacy and there’s good evidence that Russian genuinely feared US systems.

Already, the announced new missile defense plans look far less threatening to Russia. The replacement systems have the added bonus of potentially being more effective against Iranian threats — and the altered plan has not unduly hurt relations with Eastern European NATO partners.

I should note that the Pentagon is hastening the pace of the “bunker buster” bombs developed potentially to strike underground nuclear facilities in countries like Iran or North Korea. While this arguably moves the U.S. towards nuclear primacy, it seems to be a much greater threat to new proliferants than to the Russian arsenal.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.