Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Nuclear allies should talk more

The United States sees its nuclear arsenal as playing a vital role in constraining further nuclear proliferation among its allies through robust extended deterrence. General Kevin P. Chilton, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command testified today before the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, explaining this point:

“In my opinion, a stockpile modernization strategy and nonproliferation efforts should be considered complementary, not mutually exclusive, means to the same safer world. Modernization could provide a unique opportunity to introduce enhanced safety and security features that would render our weapons undesirable terrorist targets. It can be argued that the effort also strengthens the confidence numerous allies derive from our extended nuclear deterrent umbrella, allowing them to forgo indigenous nuclear programs. Should these allies (many of whom have the resources and technical ability to develop their own nuclear weapons) come to believe the United States is unwilling or unable to protect their interests through the full use of our assets, I believe global nuclear proliferation could increase, a clearly unacceptable prospect for U.S. or global security interests.”
A recurring argument on the American side against verified and legally-binding agreement to bilateral deep cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons has been that – regardless of matching Russian reductions – U.S. reductions would erode the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent, leading key allies (often Germany and Japan) to question the reliability of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” and seek their own nuclear weapons. General Chilton extends this familiar numerical argument as a rationale for modernization.

My concern about this argument is that it is both extremely important and completely resistant to contrary or mitigating information (as Franklin Miller clarified for Leonor in October 2007 when she questioned it at an event sponsored by the Center for a New American Security, explaining to her “that’s just not the way the world works”). Its correctness assumed, this argument can be extended to embrace any specific numerical force requirement, deployment pattern, use doctrine, modernization program, etc.

The Lawyers Alliance for World Security made a stab at illuminating allied perspectives on this argument in the late 1990s, featuring visits to numerous capitals by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the late Senator Alan Cranston, Major General William Burns (USA-ret.), former Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr. and other (including the Nukes on a Blog team). We found wide diversity of opinion, including some strong support for more circumspect extended deterrence policy from the United States (particularly including “no first use”) and no clear evidence that nuclear weapons reductions discussions with Russia were approaching any sort of “trigger” or “threshold” of allied nuclear proliferation. This experience left us skeptical of the “one size fits all” assertion that anything from failure to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons, to cuts below 1,000, to declaration of a “no first use” policy, to ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would undermine the commitments of U.S. allies to nuclear nonproliferation.

Also today, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gives us one more reason to be skeptical in a London speech on nuclear energy and proliferation today arguing, in part:
“We must begin by reducing the number of nuclear weapons still out there in the world, and between them the US and Russia retains around 95%. The START Treaty, the mainstay of their bilateral arms control effort, will expire later this year and I welcome their commitment to find and work for a legally binding successor which I hope will pave the way for greater reductions to come. For our part, as soon as it becomes useful for our arsenal to be included in a broader negotiation, Britain stands ready to participate and to act.”
If Britain sees itself playing a strong supporting role in creating the context for and leading the participation of the other nuclear weapons states in successful multilateral negotiations on nuclear weapons reductions, does this mean that U.S. reductions and allied reductions are complementary? If so, what does this mean for allies who rely more exclusively on extended deterrence? Does the German commitment not to build nuclear weapons grow weaker as the British nonproliferation commitment grows so strong as to allow dismantlement of nuclear weapons already deployed? The answer is at least as far from affirmative as it is from clear.

It is possible to imagine a synthesis of today’s remarks by Prime Minister Brown and General Chilton, but doing so takes enough energy and care to suggest that this should be a matter of active negotiation amongst the allies complementing the U.S.-Russian talks about nuclear weapons reductions.

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