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Nuclear Balancing Act—A Worthy Cost May 18, 2010

Posted by Guest Blogger in Analysis.
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Barry M. Blechman is the co-founder of the Stimson Center and co-editor, with Alex Bollfrass, of two recent books on how to overcome the obstacles to nuclear disarmament: Unblocking the Road to Zero is the series title and they are available through the Stimson website.

by Barry M. Blechman

President Obama’s nuclear spring offensive is cresting.  Last week he submitted the U.S.-Russia nuclear reductions treaty (START) to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and U.S. efforts are ongoing in New York to ensure a favorable outcome to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference.  Hoping to guarantee that this “offensive” climaxes in tangible victory – Senate ratification of the START agreement this summer – the President has undertaken a delicate balancing act.

On the one hand, President Obama clearly puts a high priority, both policy-wise and personally, on reducing nuclear dangers and eventually eliminating them totally. He articulates these goals often and frequently corrals world leaders in events that draw attention to nuclear dangers and reiterate their commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons.  The special U.N. Security Council summit in September and the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April are just two examples.

These positions are not mere rhetoric.  Rather, the Administration is living its values through policy.

The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released in April, lists “preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism” and “reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy” as the first two objectives of the nation’s nuclear policy.  Even the traditional primary goal of “strategic deterrence” is now listed third as, “maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels.”  Soon thereafter, the new START agreement cut U.S. and Russian strategic force levels by close to one-third from the levels permitted by the treaty it replaces.  Other steps, such as declassifying the number of weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and retiring nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles, have also contributed to the disarmament side of the scale.

On the other hand, while his ultimate goals might be idealistic, pursuing them realistically has allowed President Obama to succeed in the political side of this balancing act.  In the nuclear realm, the President faces two obstacles. At home, he must avoid being painted as “weak on defense,” a caricature often used to smear Democrat presidents.  Abroad, he must both persuade other nuclear weapon states to take disarmament seriously, and also reassure allies that the U.S. will not desert them during the lengthy transition to a nuclear-weapons-free world.

As a result, Administration officials stress repeatedly that so long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. will maintain a safe, reliable, and effective nuclear arsenal.  These statements are backed up, moreover, by requests for spending increases that have cut the ground out from under many potential critics.

The most prominent spending request has been a ten percent increase in funds for the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapon programs ($7 billion in 2011); the increases will continue in future years and the program will cost a total of $80 billion over ten years.  The Administration justifies this increase as necessary to ensure the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons by strengthening the people and facilities that support them and replacing components of several existing weapons.

The Defense Department budget also includes nuclear modernization funds, among other things, to replace U.S. strategic submarines and their missiles when they reach the end of their planned lifetimes, to make it possible for some of the new F-35 fighters to deliver nuclear bombs, and to study the need and possible design of a new long-range bomber and accompanying cruise missile.

Underscoring its savvy, the Administration also avoided several politically-charged decisions in the NPR urged upon them by arms control advocates, including unilaterally retiring some of the nuclear warheads now held in reserve, withdrawing some or all of the 200 US nuclear weapons now deployed in Europe, reducing the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces, and making a pledge that the U.S. would not use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances.

In short, taking his decisions as a whole, the President’s position can be summarized as saying, “The U.S. believes that nuclear weapons pose enormous dangers and therefore wants to eliminate them, all of them, including our own.  But we’re not willing to do this alone, and so long as these weapons exist, we will maintain forces sufficient to protect our security and that of our allies.”  This is obviously a difficult balancing act, disappointing supporters of nuclear elimination in many respects.  And it’s a costly one.

I am a strong supporter of total nuclear disarmament, and I see no other path than the one charted by the President.  Without a serious modernization program, the START treaty could not gain the support of the 67 senators needed for ratification.  Without a willingness to sustain nuclear reserve forces and tactical weapons in Europe, Russia would have little incentive to negotiate reductions in its large stocks of tactical nuclear weapons.  And without a demonstrated willingness – in the absence of a disarmament treaty – to do what’s necessary to maintain a safe, reliable, and effective deterrent over the long-term, states now adding to their nuclear arsenals, like China, would have little reason to enter negotiations.

I might quibble with specific elements in the President’s approach to nuclear weapons, but overall I’d say he has the balance just right.



1. Rob - May 19, 2010

Well put.

2. Nina Salzer - May 26, 2010

Watch former US-chief negotiator James Goodby explaining why he thinks Obama’s intentions to move towards a nuclear weapons free world have NOT been watered down in the recent Nuclear Posture Review, in spite of frequently voiced criticisms on

Watch Trevor McCrisken, Chair of the British American Security Information Council, explaining the Nuclear Posture Review and giveing a brief overview of its impact on Europe, especially in regard of NATO Nuclear Sharing on

What has changed since Obame took office? David Krieger summarizes what has and has not happened so far, outlining what can be expected from the new US-president concerning the disarmament debate.

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