Foreign Policy Blogs

Taking on the Nuclear Math

The Washington Post recently noted some of the challenges that stand in the way of the Obama Administration’s goals for the upcoming Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review.  The Post’s analysis highlights a number of cases that illustrate the deeper, underlying strategic threat to President Obama’s vision for a Nuclear-Free World: the unchanged calculus that membership in the nuclear club comes with some very lucrative benefits that potentially outweigh the risks of defying the international community.

The early period of nuclear proliferation demonstrates how nuclear weapons can provide an overnight boost for states that possess them.  The dropping of atomic bombs on Japan by the U.S. not only helped bring about the end of World War II, it also provided a demonstration of American strength that catapulted the U.S. into a global power class by itself.  As the Cold War began to take shape, the USSR pursued and achieved its own atomic weapon in 1949 to prove itself the technological equal of its American rival and deter the U.S. against attack.  The next member of the nuclear club was Britain, whose pursuit of the bomb was tied to its desire to achieve “great power status on the cheap” given that it no longer had the economic capacity to maintain a conventional force of premier size and strength.  In doing so, it also dealt Britain back into the game, so to speak, by increasing the need for continued close Anglo-American security cooperation.  France was the fourth member of the club.  French President Charles de Gaulle aspired to lead a Europe that was decisively Western but independent from the U.S. and a UK that de Gaulle regarded as insufficiently European.  Part of his strategy for doing this was to gain an independent French nuclear deterrent to establish freedom of nuclear action for France.  Although France surely would not have initiated a nuclear strike without consulting the U.S. first, nuclear power status played a part in helping France build the separation that de Gaulle sought, which forced the U.S. to treat France as more of a partner to be courted than a go-along ally in American strategy.

This quick narrative outlines three key reasons why countries seek nuclear weapons: 1) to deter the threat of aggression (USSR), 2) to boost global prestige (UK) and 3) to gain leverage within the international community and resist domination by greater powers (France).  These are also some of the reasons why countries like Iran continue to seek membership in the nuclear club and why members of the nuclear club generally do not to leave it.  The key problem standing between President Obama and his goal of a Nuclear-Free World is precisely this: nothing about the logic that propels countries to risk international disfavor to pursue or maintain nuclear weapons has changed.

I discussed the Obama Administration’s strategy for the first part of its global nuclear weapons agenda in an earlier post, and the NPT review will provide an opportunity to get a sense of how much progress the administration has made thus far.  However, the more complicated step is going to be grappling with the logic of proliferation and figuring out how to counter it.  It is not at all clear that this can be done now that the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, but Obama is wagering that he can do it by successfully raising the global priority for nonproliferation to the highest level.  The administration expects that this effort will take a long time, and it can be expected that deterrence will continue to play a key role in U.S. nuclear strategy for the foreseeable future.



Ryan Haddad

Ryan Haddad is the Senior Blogger for U.S. Foreign Policy at FPA. A foreign affairs and national security analyst based in Washington, D.C., he worked in European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Bush Administration and is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Providence College. He can be followed on Twitter at @RIHaddad.