How Obama's 'global zero' push could encourage countries to keep their nukes

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is currently in Moscow for talks with the Russian government, wrote an article for this website last month arguing that the the New START nuclear reduction treaty in signed by the U.S. and Russia in 2010 "is working -- exactly as advertised" by "maintaining stability and predictability between the world's largest nuclear powers." Former Bush administration arms control officials Robert Joseph and Eric Edelman respond today, arguing that because Russia was already below the level of strategic nuclear weapons mandated by the treaty, "New START provided Moscow an incentive to go up, not down, in strategic nuclear arms."

In a pertinent article for Nonproliferation Review written last month, U.K.-based academics Andrew Futter and Benjamin Zala take a look at the incentives inherent in the Obama administration's global zero push, and argue that it could actually encourage countries to maintain or increase their nuclear arsenals. This isn't because, as the administration's critics tend to argue, countries sense weakness in the U.S. defense posture. The problem is that a nuclear-free world would make the U.S. too strong:

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has appeared determined to reduce the salience and centrality of nuclear weapons in US defense posture, at least in part to help facilitate the achievement of a nuclear weapon-free world. A fundamental, but often overlooked, component of this plan (in relation to the US defense posture) is the gradualattempt to place a far greater reliance upon advanced conventional weaponry in US national security thinking as well as practice, specifically through a larger role for ballistic missile defenses, advanced conventional strike programs, and sophisticated command, control,and monitoring capabilities. By doing this, the administration hopes to foster the domestic conditions favorable for further US nuclear reductions*thereby reigniting the push towardsnuclear abolition internationally*while at the same time placating domestic global zeroskeptics worried about a weakening of US security and the US global role.

For the Obama administration, an increased role for advanced conventional weapons will allow for further US nuclear reductions, signaling to other nuclear powers an intent to eventually disarm. In this regard, the shift toward a greater role for advanced conventional weaponry may seemlogical, both to increase the possibility of further nuclear reductions, and as a prudent response to the fluid requirements of US security. Although the general trajectory toward establishing a greater role for advanced conventional weaponry in US defense and security planning can be traced to the George W. Bush administration, the rationale behind these programs has changed considerably under Obama. Instead of viewing advanced conventional weaponry primarily as a meansto enhance US security and freedom of action in order to achieve ‘‘full spectrum dominance,'' the Obama team has shifted the focus of advanced conventional weaponryby linking the developments in ballistic missile defense (BMD) and Prompt Global Strike(PGS) with the renewed drive toward advancing the nuclear disarmament agenda.2In thisrespect, while the growth in BMD and PGS capabilities has continued largely unabatedfrom the Bush administration to the Obama administration, the policy and thinking thatunderpins these programs has shifted considerably.

While the idea of increasing the role of advanced conventional weaponry as acomponent of US national security thinking and practice is not new, Obama is the firstpresident to strongly link these plans with the goal of pursuing a world free from nuclear weapons.3 As a result, the administration's domestic policy focus must also take intoconsideration the international impact of the disarmament agenda on the major military fault lines in key US nuclear relationships with Russia, China, and other nuclear weaponstates. When the dynamics of these relationships are considered, the Obama plan toreduce the salience of nuclear weapons through*at least in part*a greater role for advanced conventional weaponry in order to foster larger nuclear reductions appears unlikely to succeed. The central problem is that US superiority in advanced conventional weaponry makes it very difficult for any US rival to agree to work toward a nuclear-freeworld when such a move already made difficult by existing conventional imbalances will magnify US power. More specifically, the close link between nuclear reductions andincreases in conventional capabilities essentially works to decrease US vulnerability in a nuclear disarmed world, while at the same time increasing the vulnerability of its currentor future rivals and adversaries. As the former US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown has written, ‘‘U.S. conventional power-projection capability and the concern that it may be used to intimidate, attack, or overthrow regimes'' is far more important in terms of driving proliferation and increasing Russian and Chinese reliance on nuclear weapons than ‘‘fear of U.S. nuclear capability or the content of U.S. nuclear policy.'' As such, a growing role for advanced conventional weaponry in US national security thinking even if it helps to facilitate US nuclear reductions appears likely to make Obama's quest for global zero far more difficult, and perhaps impossible.5

This is particularly true when it comes to Russia, which is intensely aware of the fact that it's nuclear arsenal is a key component of its claim to great power status as well as it's overwhelming conventional military inferiority to the United States. A nuclear-free world would be one where the balance of power between the two countries would be shifted even more drastically in America's favor. The situation is even more extreme for a country like North Korea, whose nukes are virtually its only claim to geopolitical relevance. 

China is a closer conventional military peer to the United States, and has thus far been satisfied with a relatively minimal nuclear deterrent, but even there, the authors write that  "a world free of nuclear weapons contextualized by overwhelming US conventional superiority... would require an unlikely leap of faith for Chinese decision makers to accept the vulnerability required in atruly trusting relationship with the United States."

In other words, it's hard to convince everyone to put their guns away when you're the guy holding the biggest knife.

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