These announcements are striking in the context of the history of American strategic policy. And as Keir Lieber and Daryl Press argue in their new article at Foreign Affairs, the nuclear peace of the last 60 years has perhaps dulled the sense of urgency that ought normally reside in discussions of high nuclear politics. Should the administration carry out its repeated pledges to make dramatic unilateral cuts in U.S. stockpiles, our country's national security might well face new extreme dangers.
Here's a passage from Lieber and Press', "The Nukes We Need: Preserving the American Deterrent":
The central problem for U.S. deterrence in the future is that even rational adversaries will have powerful incentives to introduce nuclear weapons -- that is, threaten to use them, put them on alert, test them, or even use them -- during a conventional war against the United States. If U.S. military forces begin to prevail on the battlefield, U.S. adversaries may use nuclear threats to compel a cease-fire or deny the United States access to allied military bases. Such threats might succeed in pressuring the United States to settle the conflict short of a decisive victory.The authors go on to outline the advanced technological basis for maintaining a robust "counter-target" nuclear deterrence policy. Lieber and Press speak of the "grim logic" of rational decision-making, and they anticipate criticisms from those who'd claim that their war-gaming scenarios are "macabre." But as they note:
Such escalatory strategies are rational. Losing a conventional war to the United States would be a disastrous outcome for any leader, and it would be worth taking great risks to force a cease-fire and avert total defeat. The fate of recent U.S. adversaries is revealing. The ex-dictator of Panama, Manuel Noriega, remains in a Miami prison. The former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, awaits trial in The Hague, where Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died in detention three years ago. Saddam Hussein's punishment for losing the 2003 war was total: his government was toppled, his sons were killed, and he was hanged on a dimly lit gallows, surrounded by enemies. Even those leaders who have eluded the United States -- such as the Somali warlord Muhammad Farah Aidid and Osama bin Laden -- have done so despite intense U.S. efforts to capture or kill them. The United States' overseas conflicts are limited wars only from the U.S. perspective; to adversaries, they are existential. It should not be surprising if they use every weapon at their disposal to stave off total defeat.
Coercive nuclear escalation may sound like a far-fetched strategy, but it was NATO's policy during much of the Cold War. The Western allies felt that they were hopelessly outgunned in Europe at the conventional level by the Warsaw Pact. Even though NATO harbored little hope of prevailing in a nuclear war, it planned to initiate a series of escalating nuclear operations at the outbreak of war -- alerts, tactical nuclear strikes, and wider nuclear attacks -- to force the Soviets to accept a cease-fire. The United States' future adversaries face the same basic problem today: vast conventional military inferiority. They may adopt the same solution. Leaders in Beijing may choose gradual, coercive escalation if they face imminent military defeat in the Taiwan Strait -- a loss that could weaken the Chinese Communist Party's grip on power. And if U.S. military forces were advancing toward Pyongyang, there is no reason to expect that North Korean leaders would keep their nuclear weapons on the sidelines.
Layered on top of these challenges are two additional ones. First, U.S. conventional military doctrine is inherently escalatory. The new American way of war involves launching simultaneous air and ground attacks throughout the theater to blind, confuse, and overwhelm the enemy. Even if the United States decided to leave the adversary's leaders in power (stopping short of regime change so as to prevent the confrontation from escalating), how would Washington credibly convey the assurance that it was not seeking regime change once its adversary was blinded by attacks on its radar and communication systems and command bunkers? A central strategic puzzle of modern war is that the tactics best suited to dominating the conventional battlefield are the same ones most likely to trigger nuclear escalation.
Furthermore, managing complex military operations to prevent escalation is always difficult. In 1991, in the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker assured Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, that the United States would leave Saddam's regime in power as long as Iraq did not use its chemical or biological weapons. But despite Baker's assurance, the U.S. military unleashed a major bombing campaign targeting Iraq's leaders, which on at least one occasion nearly killed Saddam. The political intent to control escalation was not reflected in the military operations, which nearly achieved a regime change.
In future confrontations with nuclear-armed adversaries, the United States will undoubtedly want to prevent nuclear escalation. But the leaders of U.S. adversaries will face life-and-death incentives to use their nuclear arsenals to force a cease-fire and remain in power.
Deterrence depends on the capacity to carry out threats. Retaining that capacity is not a sign that the United States has moved beyond deterrence to a war-fighting posture for its nuclear arsenal; rather, the capacity to execute threats is the very foundation of deterrence.It's not a mystery as to why this administration is so intent on dismantling the strategic security apparatus that's kept great power peace since the end of World War II. This president sees the United States as the greatest threat to internatioanal order - that's why he's toured the world making apologies for American policies and power projection, and that's why he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But hopey-changey platitudes of world peace are essentially exogenous to the logic of military-strategic rationality. Ignoring these facts will make war more likely, not less, with an even greater risk of catastrophic loss of life.
UPDATE: See also Common Sense Political Thought, "Foreign Policy 101: Do We Really Want to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?"