An alternative nuclear posture

President Bush's 2002 nuclear posture differs sharply from its predecessors and is relevant to the President's recently repeated assertion that he will strike first against any country that might pose a threat of using weapons of mass destruction.

The main new trend in the posture is that the US will be prepared to use nuclear weapons in a much wider range of circumstances than before. Such an emphasis has not been seen since the days of "flexible response" forty or so years ago, when tactical nuclear weapons were deployed in Europe and elsewhere.

Yet, nuclear weapons don't help much with the kinds of missions the US prepares for, including the ones noted in the posture, such as digging out deep underground facilities that might contain bio-warfare agents. Deep underground facilities are difficult or impossible to destroy without large nuclear explosions that create large amounts of fallout. Nuclear weapons are more suited for use against shallow-buried facilities (of the order of ten meters deep) but even in those cases, Hiroshima-type yields are needed, and complete destruction of the bio-agents cannot be guaranteed. Other uses mentioned to justify the posture are even more marginal in their feasibility.

Given the overwhelming US conventional advantage and the relative invulnerability of the US to all but nuclear weapons, the US nuclear posture should aim at minimizing the chances of nuclear weapons spread rather than seeking marginal gains with tactical nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are equalizers. Why bring them back into the forefront of regional problems, whether in the Middle East or anywhere else?

Increasing the US nuclear threat will increase the motivation of adversaries, big or small, to improve and extend their own nuclear force, or to get one if they don't already have one. The US cannot subsequently be confident that it will be the only power to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. There are now several demonstrations of the relative ease with which states can acquire nuclear weapons. North Korea, a poor nation of 17 million people, made and separated with little help enough plutonium for perhaps one or more weapons. South Africa made at least six weapons with essentially no help. Other cases tell the same tale.

The nuclear genie is long out of the bottle and the relative stability that characterized the Cold War is also gone. Instead, the US has been pursuing an aggressive strategy of military expansion around the world and ever closer to other states' vital interests. Quite apart from the wisdom of that strategy, is it wise to couple it with an increased nuclear threat to possible adversaries, as the posture does?

In the past, the existence of a real or putative nuclear threat has been a serious motivation for states to improve and extend their own nuclear force, or to get one if they didn't already have it. That was true of the US, USSR, China, and others. The US, as the world's strongest and least vulnerable major power, should pursue a strategy that minimizes the most serious risk rather than increase it for marginal, and questionable, benefits. The posture implies a strategy that does the opposite.

A nuclear posture better suited to our times would recognize these changes. It would lay the policy basis for the following difficult, long-term, but necessary steps:

1. Minimizing the demand for nuclear weapons, focusing on Asia. Asia contains most of the world's population and might, in a few decades, have most of its wealth. Three states there (four if Israel is included) have nuclear weapons; several more could readily have them. The US nuclear posture should provide US initiatives toward a more stable security order there, one in which peaceful states will not be threatened by nuclear or potentially nuclear rivals. The Non-Proliferation Treaty provides a basis -the only existing basis- for such an order, but it needs to be updated with more inducements in the way of technical cooperation and reassurance, and more clearly defined internationally agreed sanctions if the treaty is disregarded. The US nuclear posture in essence forswears the lead in this endeavor.

2. A pattern for nuclear arms reductions that would include eventually limitations on all arsenals. Openness here is as important as numbers. The US and Russia have most of the weapons but, after the first hundred or so survivable weapons, it matters less and less how many a state has. An internationally recognized framework is needed that can be applied to the regions of the world where nuclear rivalries threaten. Instead, the US has gone the other way, with a sketchy US-Russia agreement that delays the time scale for reductions and does not provide any precedent for international agreements on inspections.

3. A strategy for addressing the problem of nuclear terrorism. The most serious dimension of that problem--the possibility of a terrorist nuclear weapon --is closely related to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and capabilities. Any strategy to avoid that has an important international dimension. Hundreds of tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, most of it surplus in the US and former Soviet Union from the Cold War, need to be better secured and accounted for. A solution to the problem of keeping nuclear weapons and materials out of the tens of millions of shipping containers that crisscross the world requires international cooperation on standards, procedures, cost sharing, and inspections. A good start has been made toward these goals, mainly through the Nunn-Lugar programs, but more money and agreements are needed. A modern nuclear posture should establish the policy basis for securing those resources and agreements. There is at present no comprehensive global strategy for securing such vital agreements and establishing the institutions to enforce them. Consistent, high-priority US participation is vital to secure other countries' participation.

4. A strategy for reducing the risks of accidental nuclear launch while at the same time maintaining invulnerability of the reduced deployments. The nuclear posture briefly mentions the "rigorous safeguards" on US weapons systems and proposes to deal with the problem of accidental or unauthorized launch of "certain foreign forces" via nuclear missile defense. That is at best a partial and certainly a distant remedy. Maintaining the human and financial infrastructure for nuclear weapons system will become more difficult in the US as well as elsewhere. Given the relationship among nuclear deterrent forces, the problem cannot be solved unilaterally. A program that would use US technical leadership to improve warning and control for all states threatened by nuclear weapons is also needed. It is needed now in South Asia. Later, it could help limit crises with or among Russia and China, and help prevent proliferation in the Middle East. President Reagan, with a portion of Star Wars, and, before him, President Eisenhower, with Open Skies, had something of the kind in mind. It is time to begin thinking about how this would look in modern form.

In summary, a nuclear posture for a world with more dispersed power centers and more widely available nuclear technology should have more, not less, emphasis on international agreements. President Eisenhower stated fifty years ago that "Only chaos will result from our abandonment of collective international security." That is even truer in today's world than it was then. The present administration seems to have a bias against such agreements, which are slow to bear fruit and do not win votes. That is shown in the posture itself, which states that arms control measures will not stand in the way of nuclear weapons development.

Yet these and other agreements are essential to deal with the dangers of proliferation to unstable states, with the possible use of international trade for terrorism, and with the risk of accidents and unauthorized launch. Nuclear deterrence continues to be needed, but the last thing a modern posture should do is to bring nuclear weapons back into the forefront of regional deterrence.

Ironically, when it has committed itself to the task, the US has used international agreements more effectively than any other nation. The Cold War-- better called a Cold Peace perhaps, since the military lines of demarcation never changed while the safeguarding of Western values and collapse of the Soviet Union were brought about mainly by economic and political instruments-- saw a rise in US power and influence in good part through the use of US-led international agreements in the areas of trade and security, areas that are necessarily related. Now is not the time to give up that approach, especially not in matters relating to nuclear weapons.