Nuclear strategy is a topic frequently overlooked by the American public and policymakers alike. In some ways this is reassuring, as it suggests that the focus on nuclear war has largely passed with the end of the Cold War. However, it would be naive to assume that nuclear weapons will not factor into future conflicts. Therefore, I think it is worth briefly highlighting some of the more vexing problems of nuclear strategy and non-proliferation efforts.
Perhaps the most important question from an American perspective is how to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. After all, the greater the number of countries with nuclear weapons, the more complicated deterrence relationships become. And there is also a general assumption that the more states acquire nuclear weapons, the more likely it is that a nuclear weapon will be detonated either intentionally or by accident, though there is some disagreement on this point. Finally, the spread of nuclear weapons threatens to constrain American military options by permitting an otherwise weaker country to raise the costs of intervention to unacceptable levels. But how should the U.S. prevent other countries from seeking to acquire nuclear weapons? One approach would be to use coercive approaches, such as economic sanctions or airstrikes, to raise the costs of proliferation. This is a generally accepted approach, and it seems prudent. But this approach alone is insufficient, particularly if countries view nuclear weapons as crucial to their survival. To understand why, put yourself in the shoes of Kim Jong-Un. Kim is facing an American administration that has publicly mulled an attack on his country, and he has seen previous American administrations overthrow regimes in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Therefore, he has good reason to believe that he might be next. Given this concern, it makes sense for him to acquire nuclear weapons at just about any cost, as a nuclear arsenal might be the only way to prevent American forces from taking him and his regime out. In other words, while crippling economic sanctions are an enormous burden, they pale in comparison to regime change.
Fortunately, most countries aren’t faced with the imminent threat of regime change and thus can be dissuaded by the threat of ostracization and economic sanctions. Many countries do face security threats, though. Japan and South Korea, for example, face a nuclear China and North Korea. And Saudi Arabia would face enormous security pressures if Iran were ever to acquire nuclear weapons. In cases such as these, it is not at all obvious that tools like economic sanctions would be all that useful in preventing these countries from developing nuclear weapons. Instead, most analysts agree that cases of security-driven proliferation can only be avoided by solving the root cause of nuclear weapons development: insecurity. Generally, it is believed that extending America’s nuclear umbrella and entering into some kind of military alliance with the countries at risk of proliferating is sufficient to prevent nuclear proliferation. Of course, U.S. guarantees must be credible to ameliorate a country’s perceived insecurity, but I think American military power is overwhelming enough to generally be viewed as credible. A more interesting question is how to prevent proliferation by countries that don’t need nuclear weapons for security reasons but instead see them as a way of boosting their international prestige. The reason this is interesting is that the approach for dealing with this kind of proliferation seems to directly contradict that employed for security-driven proliferation. In a security-driven model, U.S. nuclear strength is viewed as preventing proliferation by reassuring allies that the U.S. has the means to extended deterrence. But if a country views nuclear weapons as key to power and prestige, increased U.S. nuclear development will only solidify the link between superpower status and nuclear weapons. After all, if the U.S. thinks nuclear weapons are useful to the point that it continues to spend hundreds of billions on modernizing and diversifying its arsenal, other countries might think nuclear weapons are worth acquiring. For what it’s worth, I think most countries tend to fall under the security model, so I think extended deterrence and modernization are worth pursuing. But there is always the risk that nuclear modernization will encourage countries to get nukes of their own, and that is a concerning thought.
A second question whose answer is far from obvious is what to do with countries that do acquire nuclear weapons against American wishes. On the one hand, the U.S. does not want to be seen as encouraging or acquiescing to other countries’ illegal development of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the U.S. has an interest in ensuring that a new proliferator has adequate safeguards against theft and unauthorized or accidental use. Given these conflicting needs, it’s hard to know if the U.S. should aid a new member of the nuclear club in setting up and organizing its arsenal or alienate and ostracize it in order to show other countries the costs of building nuclear weapons. If the U.S. chooses to isolate the proliferator and offer no assistance in arsenal security, it may face a situation in which a terror organization steals a nuclear weapon or some poorly trained operator accidentally fires a nuke into a neighboring country. If the U.S. does choose to offer assistance, it may inadvertently encourage several more countries to acquire weapons by signaling that the costs of nuclear acquisition really aren’t that high after all. It is worth noting that the U.S. has pursued both strategies at different times. With India, for example, the U.S. has worked hard to engage on nuclear weapons issues. With North Korea, this has not been the case.
Before concluding, I think it is also worth considering the problems of deterrence. Perhaps the biggest is determining how to credibly signal the threat of retaliation. It may seem obvious that an American president would respond to an enemy’s nuclear attack with a nuclear attack of his own. But perhaps this is not the case. Consider, for example, being informed that Russia had launched it’s entire deployed arsenal against the U.S. What would you do? You know that the U.S. will effectively be destroyed, and you also know that Russia’s entire arsenal is already in the air, so it is impossible to prevent the attack by counterforce targetting. Would you feel comfortable ordering the launch of American missiles to incinerate millions of innocent Russians? To put it another way, the U.S. is already going to be destroyed, so what is the point of destroying Russia? Consider another scenario, if you will. Russia decides to nuke Guam with a single nuclear warhead. Immediately after the strike, Russia informs you through back channels that it does not seek to escalate the conflict and is willing to discuss ways to back down. What do you do? You could, of course, ignore Russia’s offer and immediately retaliate with nuclear weapons. However, this would amount to deliberately choosing to escalate the conflict to large-scale nuclear war when you have a clear option to halt the conflict from intensifying. Would you risk losing LA, DC, and New York simply to avenge Guam, or would you cut your losses and engage in phased de-escalation with the Russians? Finally, consider the problem of extended deterrence. Imagine that you find out North Korea has nuked Kyoto, Japan and has threatened to launch nuclear missiles at Seattle, San Francisco, and Honolulu if the U.S. retaliates. Do you immediately launch nuclear missiles in retaliation for North Korea’s strike on an American treaty ally or do you hold off in order to protect America’s cities? I think most people would still choose to retaliate in these situations, but there are compelling reasons for not doing so, and thus some leaders might feel comfortable rolling the dice. You can make the situation even more complicated by imagining an accidental or unauthorized launch. What if some rogue North Korean officer launches a nuclear missile at Anchorage without the consent of Kim? Assume also that Kim publicly admits to the mistake, assures Washington that the launch was never ordered or condoned by him, and publicly executes the rogue officer for treason. Should the U.S. incinerate all of North Korea because of an unauthorized launch, spreading radiation into China and South Korea and creating a massive humanitarian crisis, or should it absorb the hit and respond in a more constrained manner?
Nuclear strategy and policy are extremely complicated and force one to consider quite horrific and macabre scenarios. I am not sure there is a clear answer to any of the questions raised above, but I think it is important to be cognizant of these challenges because it is ultimately American voters who choose the individual entrusted with the nuclear arsenal.