Foreign Policy Blogs

On the Nuclear Posture Review

Another day, another crisis. North Korea, despite the international community’s cautious optimism following the Trump-Kim summit, appears to be moving full steam ahead with its missile program, all while the last vestige of the Iranian Nuclear Deal is swept away by hawkish White House advisors calling for regime change. It has become alarmingly clear that, to the chagrin of all those unfortunate enough to be living on planet Earth, the role of nuclear weapons in the 21st century will be a prominent one. Through its presidential proclamations on twitter, the Trump administration has demonstrated its eagerness to open up avenues of conflict from horrific to traverse. Its actual policies, however, offer little comfort. On February 2nd, the Pentagon released its Nuclear Posture Review to little fanfare and, in doing so, announced its intention to give its nuclear arsenal a competitive edge in a new arms race with Russia and China. In a radical departure from the 2010 NPR, which concluded on the optimistic sub-chapter titled “Towards a World free of Nuclear Weapons,” the Trump-era NPR consistently compares arsenal sizes with that of its geopolitical rivals and startlingly calls for the first  increase in America’s nuclear capabilities since the Nixon administration. Viewed as a starting pistol, the NPR is the launch of a Trumpian missilemeasuring contest that has reinvigorated the debate over the role of nuclear weapons in the world at a time of increasing instability.

When the first draft of the NPR was published by Huffington Post in January, response to the broadened nuclear response scope was so negative that the Doomsday Clock nauseously lurched 30 seconds closer to midnight. In its final form, the NPR seems to have scaled back some of the more troubling phrases like “supplementary low-yield weapons” or “enhance[d] deterrence,” the paper itself remains unnervingly vague on several matters.  

This macho march towards bigger arsenals risks normalizing what should be unthinkable. It is a radical shift not only in US policy, but it breaks with a global trend of non-proliferation and disarmament, best displayed by the tireless work of people like recent Nobel Laureate Beatrice Fihn of ICAN and Ambassador Jan Kickert, Permanent Representative of Austria to the United Nations, both of whom worked on the recent Nuclear Ban Treaty, which was passed by the United Nations in 2017.

Even worse, the NPR has encouraged some to consider weapons of mass destruction as a legitimate strategic option. Armchair-proponents of nuclear weapons are likely to laud the focus on the so-called realist perspective of the NPR, which in its first draft touts that its authors “view{s} the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.” This adolescent nihilism ignores that policies that encourage increasing arsenal sizes and disproportionate responses actually shape the world into the terrifying form they are supposedly protecting us from. By making nuclear weapons a deployable option in a greater number of possible scenarios, the United States is increasing the likelihood of either nuclear war or the one-sided slaughter of foreign civilians, outcomes often glossed over by tacticians, amateur and professional alike. What this strategy fails to acknowledge is that both options are almost inconceivably horrible, and their implementation should only be considered in the direst of circumstances.

More serious discussions regarding nuclear policy frequently focus on the stability enabled by America’s superior military capabilities. Scholars like Daryl G. Press and Kier Lieber have credited the mild climate of the Cold War to Mutually Assured Destruction, which admittedly may be correct. So stable was the world under constant threat of total destruction, some academics have even taken to calling the period following WWII, ‘The Long Peace.’ To do so, however, ignores the many mishaps, miscommunications, and stand-offs between the 1950’s and the 1980’s that all potentially could have killed millions. In any case, yesterday’s balancing act does not guarantee stability today, and be it by accident or intention, the probability of a nuclear incident gradually increases to a certainty over time should more countries continue to create nuclear weapons. As the saying goes, we only have to be unlucky once.

Despite the posturing of the Trump administration, a nuclear arms race is one no else seems eager to run. Instability, braggadocio, and the ability to wipe out all life on Earth is a nitroglycerine mix, and by pursuing such a short-sighted policy, Donald Trump has finally delivered his followers back into their fetishized 1950’s. Just maybe not as advertised.

Adam J. Camiolo is the Director of Membership for the Foreign Policy Association. He currently oversees the FPA Associates program, as well as numerous lectures, conferences, and events in New York City. He also works on building strategic partnerships, various task forces, and research conducted by the FPA.

Mr. Camiolo has a Master’s degree in Public Administration with a concentration in International Economic Policy and Management/International Politics from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University, as well as a BA in History from SUNY Geneseo.