America’s Nuclear Strategy: Core Obligations for our Next President

September 19, 2016

5 min read

Louis Rene Beres

Plainly, whoever is elected president in November, his or her most urgent obligations will center on American national security. In turn, this will mean an utterly primary emphasis on nuclear strategy. Moreover, concerning such specific primacy, there can be no plausible or compelling counter-arguments.

In world politics, some truths are clearly unassailable. For one, nuclear strategy is a “game” that pertinent world leaders must play, whether they like it, or not. The next US president can choose to learn this inherently complex game purposefully and skillfully, or inattentively and inexpertly. Either way, he or she will have to take part.

Should our next president opt for the more patently sensible choice of learning, he or she will then need to move significantly beyond their predecessor’s earlier search for global denuclearization (President Barack Obama’s expressly preferred “world free of nuclear weapons”), and move instead toward a meaningfully realistic plan to (1) control nuclear proliferation; and (2) improve America’s nuclear posture. Under no circumstances, should any sane and sensible US president ever recommend the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, a starkly confused endorsement that would, on its face, represent the reductio ad absurdum of all possible presidential misjudgments.

Intellectually, the proliferation issue has already been dealt with by competent nuclear strategists for decades, authentic thinkers who well understand that any alleged benefits of nuclear spread must generally be overridden by expectedly staggering costs. There is a single prominent exception to the anti-proliferation argument. Israel, an already nuclear power that is “ambiguous” or undeclared, requires its national nuclear deterrent merely to survive.

At the start of the Cold War, the United States first began to codify vital orientations to nuclear deterrence and nuclear war. At that time, the world was tightly bipolar, and the obvious enemy was the Soviet Union. Tempered by a shared knowledge of the horror that had finally ceased in 1945, each superpower had then understood a conspicuously core need for cooperation (or at least technical and diplomatic coordination), as well as conflict preparedness.

With the start of the nuclear age, American national security was premised on seemingly primal threats of “massive retaliation.” Over time, especially during the Kennedy years, this meticulously calculated policy was softened by more subtle and nuanced threats of “flexible response.” Along the way, moreover, a coherent and generalized American strategic doctrine was crafted to accommodate every conceivable kind of adversary and enemy encounter.

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Systematic and historically grounded, this doctrine was developed self-consciously to evolve prudently, and usually in carefully considered increments. We are now witnessing the start of a second cold war. This time, however, there will likely be more points of convergent interest and cooperation between Washington and Moscow. For example, in view of our mutual concern for controlling Jihadist terrorism, “Cold War II” could eventually represent an improved context for identifying overlapping strategic interests.

At this moment, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump should be thinking about already-nuclear North Korea and Pakistan, and about a still prospectively nuclear Iran. However well-intentioned, the July 2015 Vienna Pact on Iranian nuclear weapons can never reasonably be expected to succeed. Jurisprudentially, it even subverts the pre-existing Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (1968), and still earlier expectations of the Genocide Convention (1948). According to the latter, no state that encourages “incitement to genocide” can ever be allowed to go unsanctioned.

Also important for Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump to understand will be various possible interactions or synergies between our major adversaries. North Korea and Iran, for example, both with documented ties to China, Syria, and Russia, have maintained a long-term and consequential strategic relationship. In managing such strategic threats, will Cold War II help us or hurt us? These will represent fundamentally intellectual questions, not political ones, and will therefore need to be addressed at suitably analytic levels.

Of course, for our next president, strategic policy will also have to deal with an assortment of sub-national threats of WMD terrorism. Until now, certain insurgent enemies were able to confront the United States with serious threats in assorted theatres of conflict, but they were also never really capable of posing a catastrophic and correlative hazard to the American homeland. Now, however, with the steadily expanding prospect of WMD-equipped terrorist enemies – possibly, in the future, even well-armed nuclear terrorists – we could sometime have to face a strategic situation that is both prospectively dire, and historically sui generis.

To face such an unprecedented and portentous situation, our next president will need to be suitably “armed” with antecedent nuclear doctrine and policies. By definition, such doctrine and policies should never be “seat of the pants” reactions to singular or ad hoc threats. Rather, because, in science, generality is a trait of all serious meaning, they will have to be shaped according to broad categories of strategic threat to the United States. In the absence of such previously worked-out categories, American responses are almost sure to be inadequate or worse.

From the start, all US strategic policy has be founded upon an underlying assumption of rationality. In other words, we have always presumed that our enemies, both states and terrorists, will inevitably value their own continued survival more highly than any other preference, or combination of preferences. But, as our next president must be made to understand, this core assumption can no longer be taken for granted.

Ultimately, US nuclear doctrine must also recognize certain critical connections between law and strategy. From the standpoint of international law, certain expressions of preemption or defensive first strikes are known formally as anticipatory self-defense. Anticipating possible enemy irrationality, when would such protective military actions be required to safeguard the American homeland from diverse forms of WMD attack? This is an important question to be considered by our next president.

Recalling, also, that international law is part of the law of the United States – a recollection that has thus far eluded Mr. Trump – most notably at Article 6 of the Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”), and at a 1900 Supreme Court case (the Pacquete Habana) how could anticipatory military defense actions be rendered compatible with both conventional and customary legal obligations? This is another question that will have to be raised.

Our next president must understand that any proposed American strategic doctrine will need to consider and reconsider certain key issues of nuclear targeting. The relevant operational issues here will concern vital differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (so-called “counter value” targeting), and targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (so-called “counterforce” targeting).

At first glance, any such partially-resurrected targeting doctrine could sound barbarous or inhumane, but if the alternative were less credible US nuclear deterrence, certain explicit codifications of counter value might still become the best way to prevent millions of American deaths from nuclear war and/or nuclear terrorism. Of course, neither preemption nor counter value targeting could ever guarantee absolute security for the United States and its allies, but it is nonetheless imperative that our candidates put serious strategic thinkers to work on these and other critically-related nuclear issues.

The very first time that our next president will have to face a nuclear crisis, our national response should flow seamlessly from a broader and previously calibrated US strategic doctrine. It follows that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton should already be thinking carefully about how this complex doctrine can best be shaped and employed.

Reprinted with author’s permission from OUP Blog

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