Experts Weigh in on the U.S. Government’s Plans to Loosen Nuclear Weapon Constraints

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In Brief
A new draft by the U.S. Department of Defense could loosen constraints on nuclear weapons use. The proposed policy has alarmed arms control advocates, and experts think there's reason to worry.

Controversial policy shift

The White House may be changing its previous policy on nuclear weapons, according to recent reports quoting a former U.S. government official, who has seen the draft of the nuclear posture review (NPR) prepared by the Pentagon.

Jon Wolfsthal, an Obama administration special assistant on arms control and nonproliferation, told The Guardian that the draft NPR would loosen constraints on nuclear weapons use, as well as provide for a low-yield nuclear warhead for the Trident D5 submarine-launched missiles. The NPR, which is the first of its kind in eight years, is expected to be published after president Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech towards the end of January.

Image credit: WikiImages/Pixabay

Image credit: WikiImages/Pixabay
Arms control advocates and nuclear weapons’ critics have been alarmed by the news. They are worried about the message the draft policy could send, especially in light of recent efforts towards a global nuclear weapons ban. Critics also argue that the draft, particularly its provisions for developing smaller nuclear weapons, could easily lead to the Trump government finding reasons to use them. Such outcome, they say, is not beyond the realm of possibility, especially with plans to fund the nuclear weapons arsenal of the U.S. with $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years. Futurism reached out to some experts on the issue. Here’s what they had to say.


Rasha Abdul-Rahim, Advocate and Adviser on Arms Control, Security Trade, & Human Rights, Amnesty International:

In general terms, Amnesty International is opposed to the use, possession, production and transfer of nuclear weapons by any country, including permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Nuclear arms are the most destructive and indiscriminate weapons ever created, and are capable of causing utterly catastrophic harm. Their use would invariably violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law, therefore they should never be used under any circumstances.

Because the humanitarian and environmental consequences of using nuclear weapons would be global and catastrophic, eliminating such dangers is the responsibility of all governments in accordance with their obligation to ensure respect for international humanitarian law. The Trump administration must therefore work [towards] eliminating nuclear weapons, rather than expanding the circumstances under which they can be used.

Nickolas Roth, Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government:

If the draft NPR currently being circulated is the same as what the Trump administration plans to publish, there is reason for concern. The policies endorsed in this document increase the likelihood nuclear weapons would be used in conflict and signal that the United States is backing away from its international nuclear nonproliferation commitments.

President Trump’s NPR emphasizes the dangerous myth of limited nuclear war. Even Ronald Reagan, once considered a hawkish Republican, understood this idea was a fantasy, arguing “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The Trump administration proposes placing more usable, lower yield (though still very powerful) nuclear weapons on submarines under the misguided assumption it’s possible to use nuclear weapons to control escalation with other countries.

President Trump’s NPR paints a false picture that the United States has been disarming while other countries have been modernizing their nuclear weapons. This is not true. Not only does the United States possesses the second largest (second to Russia) and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal in the world, but in 2013 the Pentagon stated that it could reduce its deployed nuclear weapons further by a third without adversely impacting the US nuclear deterrent.

Even if many of the proposals in this NPR do not come to fruition, the Trump administration’s endorsement of new nuclear weapons will have harmful international repercussions. This NPR will further demonstrate that nuclear weapons states are not serious about their international obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Sarah E. Kreps, Associate Professor of Government, Cornell University:

Obviously, the decision would be at odds with the push for a global nuclear weapons ban, although I think the Obama Administration ‘s commitment to $1 trillion in modernization made it clear that the United States had abandoned its Global Zero pledge. Those funds included financing a new class of ballistic missile submarines, a new long-range bomber, upgrades to existing nuclear weapons, and a new type of cruise missile, among other things. Even if all this spending is to create a credible deterrent, academic research has long shown that even seemingly defensive moves can produce an arms race because intentions are not always obvious to other parties.

Trump does appear to be continuing with these commitments, but so far, I would say that the big difference is in the language that the two have used.  President Obama seemed to want to fly under the radar with the modernization, so as not to alienate his constituency on the left. President Trump has no such reticence, and has more bombastically embraced the virtues of nuclear weapons in the service of deterring war.

Even if the main differences are cosmetic, the question is whether differences in style can have appreciable differences in outcome.  The types of language Trump has used could clarify and dissuade potential adversaries from challenging the United States.  However, international politics is always about subtleties and nuance amidst the prospect for miscalculation, and the worry is that Trump’s bellicose language could inadvertently escalate rather than defuse tensions.  Given the stakes–the prospect for catastrophic nuclear exchanges–the fast-and-loose verbal style that Trump has deployed is more dangerous even if the underlying policies are not entirely dissimilar.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Dom Galeon January 22, 2018
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