Who is the Intended Audience of the Nuclear Posture Review?
The Obama administration has declared publicly that the United States will not retaliate with nuclear weapons against a nation that attacks us with chemical or biological agents, provided that nation is also in compliance with the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is so trivial and insignificant a change to our policy—and merely our stated policy, mind you—that it’s almost laughable. So, we’re not going to—or rather, we say we’re not going to—evaporate Johannesburg in the event that, say, South African special forces release a cloud of nerve gas in a subway and manage to kill half a dozen New Yorkers? Incidentally, this has always been the case for conventional weapons. We have already long ago ruled out the use of nuclear weapons in the event that those same South African special forces detonated several hundred pounds of dynamite, to vastly more lethal effect than any chemical or biological weapon hitherto deployed. What Secretary Gates calls a “significant” change to our nuclear posture is nothing of the kind. (For more on this point, the Federation of American Scientists has posted a thorough response to the NPR arguing that even the very limited apparent changes means less than they seem.)
Naturally, the Right is apoplectic. So predictable and unintelligent is their fury that I began to suspect that Obama’s intention was to goad them into more and more unreasonable postures as they struggle to paint our hawkish and indeed almost neoconservative president as a latter-day St. Francis bent on world appeasement. If this indeed the case, the administration has miscalculated, I think. While there’s no question that knowledgeable bloggers et al are snickering at Krauthammer et al, the American public’s analysis of foreign policy seems to revolve around a single variable: namely, how “strong” we are. Sadly, “strength” is rarely understood to include cleverness, which is useful in dealing with foreign powers, even for a superpower like the United States. Consequently, if the Right does succeed in communicating to the American people that the administration has even in a trivial way narrowed the scope of circumstances in which we are prepared to use nuclear weapons, they will have scored a political point.
This political fact seems obvious enough that I tempered my suspicion that Obama was merely laying a trap for conservatives who can’t think straight about foreign policy. And indeed, for domestic audiences the Defense Department seems anxious to explain that nothing has really changed. It seems more likely that the intended audience of this superficial change in our nuclear posture is foreign governments. A not-at-all unimportant feature of global politics that gets very little press in the United States is that the major nuclear powers, including the United States, are regularly accused of nuclear hypocrisy in the general assembly of the United Nations and in other international forums. The accusation is not entirely groundless, since we are signatories to the NPT and thus in theory committed to an active dismantling of our military nuclear capabilities, which we are obviously not undertaking. While foreign governments are not going to be fooled into thinking that the administration is in fact moving towards this goal, the mere fact of having somehow, even in a merely technical way, limited our potential deployment of nuclear weapons will give us some cover in these forums. More importantly, it will give our allies cover. When delegates from Iran denounce us as hypocrites, the delegates from Brazil, for instance, who don’t actually worry too much about our nuclear arsenal, we may assume, will have grounds to object. While there are limits to the effectiveness of this kind of game, why not win them, when all it costs us is a few words that commit us to nothing and do not diminish even minutely the reality of our nuclear deterrent?