What Our New Nuclear Policy Really Means

By David Cortright 04-07-2010

The new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is a significant step toward reducing nuclear dangers, advancing global nonproliferation norms, and facilitating further reduction and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

The new strategy narrows the contingencies for possible nuclear weapons use. It reverses a decades-old policy of using nuclear weapons in the event of conventional military attack, or in response to chemical or biological weapons threats. Under the new doctrine, nuclear weapons will have the sole purpose of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by another nuclear-armed state. The only exceptions to this blanket 'non-use' policy would be states that are in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- currently Iran, North Korea and potentially Syria. All other nonnuclear states would receive what in effect is a guarantee against nuclear attack, what nuclear strategists term a 'negative security assurance.'

Such security assurances in the past have helped to persuade countries to give up the nuclear weapons option. The commitment not to use nuclear weapons against states in good standing with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty strengthens that agreement on the eve of its review conference, which convenes at the UN in New York in May. The new NPR strengthens the treaty and gives it greater credibility and legitimacy as the ultimate international standard for nuclear security.

The new NPR offers a qualified endorsement of 'sole purpose' doctrine, which asserts that nuclear weapons have only one justifiable purpose, to deter the use of other nuclear weapons. This doctrine reduces the possibility that nuclear arms could be used in conjunction with conventional war and in response to the development of chemical and biological weapons. U.S. conventional forces are judged fully sufficient to meet these potential security threats.

Universal acceptance of a non-use or sole purpose doctrine would make it easier for other states with nuclear weapons -- Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel -- to reduce weapons in tandem with the United States toward lower levels. It would make it possible to consider an eventual agreement to eliminate these weapons altogether. The new NPT reiterates the president's pledge to work toward that goal.

The NPR rejects proposals for developing new nuclear weapons and pledges continued efforts to negotiate with Russia for further reductions in nuclear weapons.

David Cortright is a contributing editor to Sojourners magazine. He is director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the co-author of the forthcoming Adelphi Papers volume, Towards Nuclear Zero, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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