The tone of the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review is often contradictory, calling for global disarmament while at the same time justifying the immediate continuation of both the U.S.’s strategic and tactical nuclear weapons’ programs. It correctly identifies that solution requires “working to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs” (vi). This is a critical observation because nuclear states will have no incentive to disarm if a nuclear strategy is widely considered to be a central part of their security policies. The key question therefore in analyzing the NPR is whether or not the measures proposed indeed reduce the salience of nuclear weapons as a matter of global security, creating political space for possible global disarmament.
One positive measure is that the NPR refines the nature of the nuclear threat to the U.S. The most significant threat is no longer nuclear war among superpowers, but a one-off attack by an emerging nuclear state or terrorist use of nuclear weapons. This change in rhetoric demonstrates that the U.S. is focusing on the small-scale implications of a nuclear attack, a shift away from a nuclear-dominated global security strategy. On the other hand, the Review maintains that significant advances in disarmament in the U.S. cannot happen without a corresponding effort from Russia. China is also called upon to make their nuclear program more transparent. This approach of course politicizes disarmament, making it a key agenda item in global security negotiations on the medium term.
The 2010 NPR demonstrates that the current U.S. policy on disarmament recognizes the global strategic paradigm shift needed to create the political space for nuclear disarmament. This is a matter of debate, but the NPR suggests that while U.S. nuclear policy is well intentioned, it is not in a position to accelerate the disarmament process. Given the current state of nuclear negotiations 4 years after the release of the NPR, it seems unlikely that even on the medium run the nuclear states will reach an agreement that reduces the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs. — Eric