Accessibility links

New U.S. Nuclear Weapons Strategy Reduces Numbers, Use

  • Heather Maher

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds up a copy of the Nuclear Posture Review during a news conference with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds up a copy of the Nuclear Posture Review during a news conference with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen

Almost a year to the day after he vowed to pursue a "world without nuclear weapons" U.S. President Barack Obama has unveiled a new national policy that commits the United States to reducing the role and numbers of nuclear weapons with a long-term goal of a nuclear-free world.


Under the new policy, which was announced today with release of the "Nuclear Posture Review" (NPR), the U.S. government -- the only country to use an atomic weapon in war -- says it will not use nuclear weapons against countries that do not have nuclear weapons themselves.


The shift is part of a larger move away from the decades-old policy of relying on the development and deployment of nuclear weapons as a guarantor of national security.


The NPR matters because it lays the groundwork for decisions over the next decade on everything from how big U.S. weapons stockpiles should be to how much money should be spent on things like nuclear submarines.


At a briefing for reporters in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the new strategy marks a dramatic break with past thinking.

Obama said he was convinced that Iran is on a course that "would provide them with nuclear weapons capabilities."

"The 'Nuclear Posture Review' we are releasing today represents a milestone in the transformation of our nuclear forces and the way in which we approach nuclear issues," she said.

"We are recalibrating our priorities to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, and we are reducing the role and number of weapons in our arsenal, while maintaining a safe, secure and effective deterrent to protect our nation, allies and partners," Clinton added.

Loophole For Iran, North Korea

Imposing a limit on scenarios in which the U.S. might launch a nuclear weapon would have been unthinkable under former President George W. Bush, who, in the era of the "war on terrorism," vowed to retaliate in full against any enemy who attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons.


But Clinton noted that the new policy of restraint is only in effect toward countries that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"We are enforcing our commitment to the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, NPT] by stating clearly, for the first time, that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the NPT, and in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations," Clinton said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that means the United States would still move against Iran or North Korea if either decided to launch a nuclear attack. North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons and Iran is suspected by the international community of trying to acquire them, which Tehran denies.

"We essentially [make exceptions for] states like Iran and North Korea that are not in compliance with the NPT, and basically, all options are on the table when it comes to countries in that category, along with non-state actors who might acquire nuclear weapons," he said.

Gates said the United States is moving toward a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, but said the number of unsecured nuclear arsenals around the world means Washington can't yet rule out pre-emptive strikes.

An End To Cold War Thinking

Almost exactly a year ago, in a speech in Prague, Obama laid out his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons and called for an end to "Cold War thinking."

The White House calls the 2010 NPR "a road map for implementing President Obama's agenda for for reducing nuclear risks to the United States, [its] allies and partners, and the international community."

Speaking in Prague last year, Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons.

It aims to do so five ways: preventing nuclear proliferation and terrorism; reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in the U.S. national security strategy; maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels; strengthening regional deterrence and reassuring U.S. allies and partners; and sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.

The report says the "massive nuclear arsenal [the U.S.] inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons."

It adds,'"Therefore, it is essential that we better align our nuclear policies and posture to our most urgent priorities: preventing nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation."

Gates said the review "rightly places the prevention of nuclear terrorism and proliferation at the top of the U.S. nuclear policy agenda.'

He added, "Given Al-Qaeda's continued quest for nuclear weapons, Iran's ongoing nuclear efforts and North Korea's proliferation, this focus is appropriate and indeed essential, an essential change from previous reviews."

Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the policy would not compromise the security of the United States or its allies.

"Even while it reduces the role played by nuclear weapons -- a reduction I wholly endorse -- this 'Nuclear Posture Review' reaffirms our commitment to defend the vital interests of the United States and those of our partners and allies with a more balanced mix of nuclear and non-nuclear means than we have at our disposal today," Mullen said.

The administration also pledged to pursue further arms control with Russia beyond the new nuclear arms reduction treaty Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently agreed.

The unveiling of the new nuclear strategy marked the start of a busy time for the Obama administration on the issue of nuclear security. On April 8, Obama will be in Prague to sign the new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Medvedev.

Next week, he hosts the leaders of more than 40 nations in Washington, D.C. at a global nuclear security summit.

with agency reports

What Is The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review?

RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Kingston Reif, deputy director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Washington-based nonprofit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, to explain the review and what it could mean.

Kingston Reif: Basically, the "Nuclear Posture Review" [NPR] is a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear weapons strategy and policy for the next five to 10 years. This particular review was mandated by Congress in the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act. And it marks the third such comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear-weapons policy since the end of the Cold War. The first was completed by the Clinton administration in 1994 and the second by the George W. Bush administration in 2002.

RFE/RL: Next week, President Barack Obama is hosting more than 40 heads of state in Washington at a global nuclear-security summit. Will the declassified conclusions of this report play a role? Is there a link between what we'll read today and what happens next week?

Reif:
I think there is a link. A year ago today the president gave a speech in Prague about the future of U.S. nuclear-weapons policy where he pledged to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. national-security policy as well as pursue the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Now, this NPR could either largely reflect the agenda that the president laid out in Prague, or it could be more of a status quo document that maintains that nuclear weapons are still as important to U.S. security as they were during the Cold War.

It remains to be seen where the NPR will come out on that regard and we're going to find out very soon. Given the nuclear-security summit and the upcoming Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, I think that a Nuclear Posture Review that doesn't really depart from the status quo could make it more difficult for the United States at these upcoming conferences. It could weaken its hand and make it more difficult for the United States to achieve the kind of support it needs from states around the world to strengthen its nonproliferation objectives [and] to increase international support for measures to safeguard and eliminate vulnerable nuclear materials.

RFE/RL: The review was supposed to have been completed last December. Have you seen or heard any explanation for why it has been delayed more than three months?

Reif:
There are potentially a couple of explanations for that. One is that this is Washington, D.C. This report was conducted via the input and cooperation of numerous different agencies even though it was led by the Department of Defense. The Department of State had input, the Department of Energy had input, the National Security Council had input, so there was a lot of bureaucracy that had to be negotiated and circumvented. And I think that's one explanation for why it's taken so long.

The other reason is that these issues are difficult and contentious issues. And there were many different parties that were part of the review process and not all of them had the same views about what the future of U.S. nuclear weapons policy should be like.
XS
SM
MD
LG