President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last week made specific reference to critical international issues, notably a planned U.S. troop drawdown from Afghanistan, Iran’s developing nuclear bomb assets and North Korea’s nuclear tests. He also expressed grave concern about the adequacy of American cyber-defenses. Absent, however, was a coherent and aptly general focus on U.S. strategic doctrine.
Nowhere were Mr. Obama’s discrete references linked to more usefully comprehensive visions of American nuclear strategy.
Yes, predictably, the president renewed his seemingly sensible drive for cuts in nuclear arms, but this was only about number, not doctrine.
Yes, we already knew that this president doesn’t like nuclear weapons. Still, there are instances when such weapons can meaningfully protect certain vulnerable nations from otherwise plausible aggressions. In these instances, moreover, “vulnerable” need not necessarily mean weak or powerless.
Now, the president needs to work toward something far more purposeful than across-the-board reductions in nuclear arms. Here, his reasonable goal should not be a world that will have fewer nuclear weapons, but rather one that will be uniformly less hospitable to mega-war and mega-terror.
Mr. Obama should have declared that we require a codified plan for national security that can cope with assorted jihadist adversaries, both state and sub-state, and also with prospective and still-formidable nuclear foes in Russia, North Korea, China, Iran and possibly a post-coup Pakistan.
During the 1950s, the United States first began to institute various doctrines of nuclear deterrence. At that time, the geostrategic world was a much simpler place. Then global power distributions were tightly bipolar. The clear enemy was the Soviet Union. American national strategy was founded on a core policy of “massive retaliation.” Later, this all or nothing posture was modified by “flexible response.”
Today, a much more complex landscape reveals multiple and inter-penetrating axes of conflict. There are now almost four times as many countries as there were back in 1945. In this expressly multi-polar world, Russia is again an appropriately major security concern.
To shape an improved U.S. strategic doctrine, President Obama will need to reconsider fundamental matters of nuclear targeting. Any such reconsideration would examine certain basic differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities, and the targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures.
Originally, “massive retaliation” had been focused on counter city targeting.Presently, at least where enemy rationality might still be assumed, U.S. strategic deterrence could again require recognizable “counter-value” policies. In those circumstances where we would confront non-rational state adversaries, however, gainful deterrence calculations could prove markedly more difficult.
Unless Mr. Obama finally begins to give U.S. strategic deterrence the attention and resources it requires, we could place our country at a renewed risk of large-scale enemy attacks.
Science is a method of reaching conclusions. In any science, including national nuclear strategy, generality is a trait of all meaning. Accordingly, this is not the time for an American president to revive the deceptively pleasing resonance of a “nuclear weapons free world.” Nor is this the correct moment to focus on certain individual nuclear threats as if they were all somehow singular, ad hoc and unique.
Although ignored in the State of the Union, now is the proper time to fashion a broadly systematic and informed U.S. strategic doctrine.
This demanding task will have to address still-impending prospects for American preemption, as well as improved methods for distinguishing adversaries (state and sub-state) according to whether they are presumed to be rational,irrational or “mad.” It will also need to consider certain more-or-less intersecting elements of nuclear deterrence, active defense, cyber-defense and cyber-warfare. Moreover, it will have to examine such elements within the far wider and more layered questions of pertinent international law, including authoritative criteria for determining (1) “anticipatory self-defense,” and (2) nonproliferation regime enforcement.
Within the Department of Defense and larger U.S. defense community, a protracted lack of emphasis on nuclear strategy and tactics has already left our military unprepared for some of the most threatening existential scenarios. To suitably confront this deficiency, one generated, in part, by our continuing involvement in non-productive and tangibly unwinnable wars, the president needs to commission a special and largely re-imagined Nuclear Posture Review. Among other things, this hard-nosed and dialectical assessment should emphasize new program designs for advanced nuclear weapons; modernization of needed nuclear infrastructures; and more consciously precise calibrations of American nuclear strength to different levels and venues of enemy threat.
Toward the end of his speech, Mr. Obama movingly listed a number of compassionate intranational changes that could help make America a safer and more durable society. Not included in this list, however, was the single most important change of all - the creation of a promising plan for the physical protection of the United States from egregious international harms. Nowhere was there any mention of need for a viable strategic doctrine.
Louis Rene Beres is an author and professor of International Law at Purdue University.