The Obama Nuclear Doctrine: Protection in a New Era of Nuclear Threats

In the past month, President Obama has taken three major steps to reorient U.S. and global nuclear policy to focus on 21st century threats and reduce the chances of nuclear conflict. Earlier this month, the Department of Defense released its Nuclear Posture Review, providing a roadmap for sustaining a safe, secure, and effective U.S. nuclear deterrent.1 On April 8, President Obama signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, reducing and securing unnecessary nuclear weapons from the Cold War. A week later, the President convened a Nuclear Security Summit of 47 world leaders in Washington, at which concrete commitments were made to secure nuclear materials and keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

Despite—or perhaps because of—these accomplishments, conservative critics are reacting sharply. They have argued both broadly—that efforts to reduce large nuclear stockpiles are naïve—and specifically, claiming that the New START undermines our security, that the Summit failed, and that the Nuclear Posture Review ties our hands in event of attack by another country. All of those attacks are false.

The Obama administration’s nuclear doctrine, defined by New START, the Nuclear Security Summit, and the Nuclear Posture Review, is a responsible approach to improving U.S. security. It builds on a long, bipartisan history of seeking to contain and reduce the prevalence of nuclear weapons around the world. It properly places the threat of nuclear terrorism as a top security priority, clarifies the U.S. nuclear position for our allies, and singles out bad actors, like Iran and North Korea, as worthy of international sanction and exempt from any U.S. security guarantees.

In this memo, we offer a short review of the three prongs in the Obama nuclear doctrine and responses to the developing conservative narrative about it.

The Obama Nuclear Doctrine: New Approaches for a New Era of Threats

New START: Maintaining a Strong and Effective Nuclear Deterrent

New START continues the decades-long bipartisan effort to reduce global reliance on nuclear weapons, with a focus on the huge arsenals of the U.S. and Russia. Some critics have already turned their back on this bipartisan tradition

and have falsely claimed that New START constrains the U.S. ability to deter attacks. In reality:

  • The U.S. will retain an overwhelming nuclear deterrent, with the U.S. and Russia agreeing under New START to cap their arsenals at 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and 700 strategic delivery vehicles (launchers, bombers, and submarines). For comparison, China has about 180 nuclear weapons, Pakistan has roughly 80, and North Korea has less than 10.2
  • The U.S. “nuclear triad” will remain in operation. This includes Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine-launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), and bomber aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons, ensuring the U.S. will be able to respond anywhere and at any time to an attack.
  • U.S. conventional (non-nuclear) weapons also provide a strong deterrent. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. military predominance has grown to the point where no other country even comes close to matching our conventional weapons capabilities. New START does not call for any limits on the use of conventional weapons, including missile defense systems.3 Those who would argue that this nuclear policy somehow weakens the U.S. ability to deter or respond to attacks are out of touch with reality.

Nuclear Security Summit: Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

Even as world leaders were joining the President at the Nuclear Security Summit to stop nuclear terrorism and proliferation, conservatives were complaining that not enough was being done to stop Iran’s nuclear program. This is both wrong and misses the point of the Summit. Coming out of the Summit, both China and Russia, two countries previously reluctant to take economic action against Iran, pledged support for a new round of international sanctions. Moreover, by focusing on the threat of loose nuclear materials, the Summit aimed to deny other rogue states and terrorist groups from obtaining nuclear material so that we won’t have to deal with another North Korea or Iran in the future.

  • A terrorist with a nuclear weapon remains the single greatest security challenge for the U.S. According to John Brennan, the President’s chief counterterrorism official, al Qaeda is actively trying to acquire nuclear materials and the expertise to build a bomb.4 The top priority of the Obama nuclear doctrine is, appropriately, the prevention of nuclear terrorism and proliferation.
  • To prevent unsecured nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists, President Obama received the commitment of 47 countries at the Nuclear Security Summit to account for and secure all nuclear material within four years. Russia agreed to dispose of 34 tons of plutonium, enough for 17,000 nuclear warheads.5
  • During the summit, Ukraine, Chile, Mexico, and Canada agreed to eliminate or return their stocks of highly enriched uranium,6 and Mexico has pledged to work with the U.S. to build a new nuclear reactor that will no longer use highly enriched uranium.7 This helps reduce the chance that nuclear material from any of these countries will end up in the hands of terrorists.

Nuclear Posture Review: Clarity for Allies, Warning for Rogue States

The Nuclear Posture Review clarifies U.S. nuclear policy for our allies, assuring them that the U.S. will not use a nuclear weapon against countries without nuclear weapons. By clearly stating U.S. intentions, allies and countries playing by the rules of international law will have less incentive to pursue a nuclear weapons program. This will make Americans safer by reducing the global supply of nuclear weapons. And yet, some conservatives have argued that this policy is “insane,”8 that it prevents the U.S. from responding adequately to an attack, and that it will provoke attacks from rogue states. This is completely false. In reality:

  • The policy explicitly excludes countries with nuclear weapons and countries that are in violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This means that rogue states like Iran and North Korea have no assurance against a nuclear strike; in fact, the exemption concentrates the focus of U.S. nuclear policy specifically on these countries. As Defense Secretary Gates noted in announcing the release of the NPT, “If you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table.”
  • Critics have falsely claimed that the policy prevents the U.S. from responding adequately to a chemical or biological weapon (CBW) attack. In fact, the policy states that any CBW attack would be met with a “devastating conventional military response” and reserves the right for the U.S. to respond to the development of new weapons by adjusting this policy.9
  • The Obama administration is holding accountable any state that aids terrorists in obtaining nuclear materials. To boost this effort, the administration is pursuing enhanced nuclear forensics to identify the source of nuclear materials.

A Focused Policy to Secure America

President Obama’s nuclear doctrine improves American security while charting a path toward a long-term global reduction in the danger posed by nuclear weapons. Some conservatives will continue to discredit these efforts, but it is actually those who want to return to the nuclear policies of the Cold War who are out of touch with reality. Already, the President’s nuclear policy is yielding results, with Russia, Ukraine, Chile, Canada, and Mexico voluntarily giving up stockpiles of nuclear materials. After years of inaction, America is once again showing global leadership in the fight against nuclear terrorism and proliferation.

End Notes