Some thoughts that I’ve been having on President Obama’s negotiations with Russia over the number and status of our collective nuclear stockpile:
America is currently negotiating from a position of strength. This is true partly because the assumptions that have to be true for the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) to exert a sufficient deterrent effect are no longer true: America has nuclear primacy, which means that we possess the capability to unilaterally first strike without the prospect of retaliation.
The signal that we are willing to reduce our nuclear inventory (from a President who has spoken openly of a nuclear-free era) is not a signal of weakness. Rather, it is a signal of utter confidence, and America’s enemies will take it that way.
Consider, by way of why this is true, the Predator drone. Unmanned drones offer us overwhelming conventional superiority because they allow us total control over a battlefield. It is not just the Taliban or Al Quaeda that should be making calculations about how viable they are in a world where drones see everything, it is the Russian and Chinese and North Korean militaries (and really, every potential enemy). Consider when unmanned drones are vastly cheaper for the US and more sophisticated in terms of the armament they’re used to deploy. In this world, no nation can claim the ability to control its airspace; squadrons of drones can infiltrate any airspace and stay radar-neutral, providing a blanket of offensive might that can completely neutralize entire nations. In this world, the option value of having nuclear weapons is increasingly offset by the prospect that unmanned drones can be anywhere, anytime.
Also consider that the US now has a dominant technological edge in military development. The collapse of the Soviet Union heralded the collapse of its military-industrial complex, and now the Russian scientists that are left mostly ply their skills elsewhere, leaving China and India as the only countries with the infrastructure to attempt to compete in this arena. I discount India as a strategic threat to the United States and think it unlikely that the Chinese alone can reach comparable levels of technological sophistication without the benefit of at least another decade. One might even reasonably assume that the next game-changing technological breakthrough will also be American.
Additionally, a world free of nuclear weapons is not a world free of nuclear technology. In a disarmed world, the nuclear threat is represented mostly by the prospect of a race to re-arm, a race in which America holds a dominant edge; even a timeframe of 24 hours to 48 hours represents a timeframe in which American air superiority, both manned and unmanned, is completely dominant.
The President’s formal declaration of the conditions under which nuclear weapons will be used is also a powerful factor in this equation. Now American enemies cannot use the argument that American nuclear power threatens non-nuclear states to muster support; at the margin, this makes the spectre of American military superiority more palatable to other nations and decreases the perception of America as a nuclear bully.
By committing to limiting our use of nuclear weapons, we implicitly signal that America is committed to maintaining our overwhelmingly superior conventional deterrent. Those that argue that nuclear weapons prevent the escalation of regional wars and that a nuclear deterrent is critical to maintaining peace were correct in the immediate aftermath of World War II; their assumptions are no longer true today.