What the Nuclear Posture Review means for proliferation and nuclear “outliers”

April 6, 2010

The Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued today the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a long awaited document that articulates the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy. Many analysts will highlight the importance of the review for further devaluing the role of nuclear weapons and for edging the United States closer to a no-first use policy by stating that the U.S. will not use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons against NPT members in good standing. These are important steps that will help the United States advance broader objectives, in particular at the upcoming NPT Review Conference. The following analysis examines the NPR from the narrower perspective of terrorism and nonproliferation policy.

Terrorism and Nonproliferation top the agenda

In her introductory remarks at the launch of the NPR, Secretary of State Clinton noted that it reflects a “recalibration” of priorities aimed at addressing the threat of nuclear terrorism and proliferation. Secretary Gates’s covering letter states that the Review places the prevention of terrorism and proliferation “at the top of the U.S. policy agenda.” The report acknowledges the profound changes in the U.S.-Russia relationship, which once defined nuclear weapons policy, and states that terrorism and proliferation are far greater threats to the United States and international stability generally.

The NPR takes the positive step of approaching the prevention of terrorism and proliferation as opportunities for U.S. leadership in multilateral diplomacy. The document states that the U.S. approach to addressing the “most immediate and extreme threat” of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon includes three elements: 1) to strengthen the NPT by “reversing the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran” while strengthening International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards system and impeding illicit nuclear trade; 2) accelerating efforts to secure “all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide in four years; and 3) the pursuit of arms control through the new START, negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

At the same time, the NPR makes clear that the United States reserves the right to “hold fully accountable” any state or group “that supports or enables terrorist efforts to obtain or use weapons of mass destruction, whether by facilitating, financing, or providing expertise or safe haven for such efforts.” (p. 12) The implication is that the United States reserves the right to retaliate with nuclear weapons against a state whose nuclear explosive material is used in an attack, whether by a state or terrorist group. While the NPR makes clear that the United States would only consider the use of such weapons under “extreme” circumstances, it is important to be aware that in the event of a terror attack, the use of nuclear weapons is not explicitly proscribed. This leaves a potentially dangerous opening for the use of a nuclear weapon when demands for retaliation will be especially acute and intelligence and forensic information vulnerable to misinterpretation.

Outliers: Diplomacy and Sanctions:

The NPR contains no magic formula for solving the problem of nuclear outliers, in particular Iran and North Korea, but both the document and comments by President Obama emphasize the importance of diplomacy, coupled with sanctions where necessary, as offering the best course for addressing the issue. In his April 5 interview to the New York Times in advance of the NPR’s release, President Obama said that Iran and North Korea “should see that over the course of the last year and a half we have been executing a policy that will increasingly isolate them so long as they are operating outside of accepted international norms.” The NPR states that the United States is “prepared to engage multilaterally and bilaterally with these states to arrive at negotiated solutions” and that their defiance of the international community “will lead only to their further isolation and increasing international pressure.”

Again, as in the case of a terror attack using nuclear weapons, the NPR leaves open the possibility of using nuclear weapons if only under “extreme” conditions against states that are not in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations. The document does not make an attempt to define noncompliance, however, emphasizing instead the “narrow range of contingencies” under which nuclear weapons might play a role in deterring conventional or WMD attacks.

email us twitter share on facebook