The Salience of Nuclear Weapons

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

25 thoughts on “The Salience of Nuclear Weapons

  1. As mentioned by Eric, it is indeed a correct and positive decision to refine the nature of nuclear threat to the U.S. as a one-off attack by an emerging nuclear state or terrorist use of nuclear weapons. Given the number of nuclear weapons around the world and the improbability of being able to destroy all enemy weapons in a first strike, the deterrence is extremely high for major states to engage in total warfare and mutually assured destruction.
    The U.S. and Russia can still maintain this deterrence with a smaller stock of nuclear weapons as we saw in last week’s readings, which leave the possibility of future arms reduction open.
    The difficult problem is what we can do to prevent a one-off attack by emerging nuclear states or terrorists. In talking about deterrence Nicols poses a hard question: “what deters a state that does not seem to value the lives of its own citizens?” If we fail to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear weapons fall into the hands of such groups that do not value its own citizens or have no citizens, how can we deter them from using them? For me, this is the more pressing concern compared to accelerating global disarmament.

  2. I think “thirose” inadvertently poses two important but very different questions: 1) what can be done to prevent a nuclear attack by a terrorist group?, and 2) what can be done to deter such an attack? Though the answer to the first one seems quite clear (making sure weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands), the latter presumes capability and thus deserves further consideration. Transnational terrorism by definition involves non-state actors, which begs the question of how could the US be expected to retaliate against an adversary without a territory? Surely one cannot nuke – and therefore threaten to nuke – Al-Qaeda or Hezbollah. If nuclear retaliation is not possible, doesn’t it follow that nuclear deterrence is not possible? Perhaps the NPR touches upon this issue when it says that “[t]he massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists” (v). Efforts should therefore be focused on preventing nuclear terrorism – erecting barriers for the acquisition of nuclear weapons – not deterring it.

  3. I agree that it’s difficult to imagine retaliation against an enemy without a territory, but this hits upon an entirely new layer of questioning. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States retaliated, not against the enemy’s land, but against the land of a government that facilitated the enemy’s continued existence. It is not a great leap to imagine that we would have retaliated in the same way if the attack had been nuclear. Our success or lack thereof during our military action in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq notwithstanding, this suggests that deterrence by nuclear weapons is not the only possible means of deterrence against nuclear weapons. A large-scale strategic attack can theoretically threaten the existence of a terrorist network without deploying nuclear missiles in someone else’s backyard.

    Nevertheless, even methods of deterrence more nuanced than a nuclear counter-strike may not be sufficient to prevent nuclear terrorist attack, so I agree with sstrauss’s point that preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons is more important than developing deterrence strategies, even if conventional deterrence is an option. This is not necessarily because we cannot adequately retaliate against an enemy with no territory, but also because terrorist groups cannot always be deterred by the possibility of their own destruction. Indeed, many terrorist attacks are predicated on that very premise.

  4. Another important point is that preventing a nuclear attack is infinitely preferable to retaliating against one, and most nuclear strategy is focused on pre-empting or dissuading nuclear strikes. There is not too much more we can do to rethink retaliatory policy. 1) If a state directly attacks us with nuclear weapons, or knowingly harbors terrorists who attack us with nuclear weapons, I believe we would retaliate with the same. 2) If the terrorists did come from a foreign country not aligned with the US, it seems clear that we’ve already set a precedent that we will respond with another Afghanistan, as Joe mentioned, and I think the threat of regime change, military occupation, and a decade of conventional warfare is enough to convince most countries to police themselves without us having to resort to a nuclear response. 3) Finally, if the attack originates from a base in a friendly country or within our own borders, our options are very limited and our best response would be to hunt down the terrorist network and try to dismantle it. Again, these options are all fairly clear since a nuclear attack basically forces your hand.

    It seems pretty unlikely that states will knowingly harbor nuclear terrorists simply because they “don’t care” about their own survival. Any possible gains are outweighed by the threat of obliteration, and although individual actors might behave irrationally, it is highly unlikely that such a scenario occurs with collective entities like states or governments collectively behave with disregard for their own existence. The biggest feasible problem I see is in case 2) where you may have weak states that lack the resources or desire to police terrorist activity. Countries with a lot of political turmoil or civil unrest can be good places for terrorists to hide, since this volatility diverts attention and resources. I feel like improvements here can go a long way towards increasing protection against nuclear attacks. One solution might be to implement an international militarized task force (like the fictional Rainbow 6) that could freely operate across international borders and fight nuclear terrorism without expressly acting in the interests of an individual country.

  5. It seems that the nuclear terrorist threat is slightly overblown. I totally agree that it would be very dangerous if a non-state terrorist group acquired nuclear capabilities, but it still seems out of their reach.Yes, it is unsettling that some groups have explicitly expressed interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, but I think this means we should just watch them even closer.

    It is difficult to make a nuclear weapon. It requires advanced technologies and expertise. It is true that these technologies are becoming cheaper and know-how is becoming more universal, but making a nuclear weapon is still really hard. It seems unlikely that a non–state terrorist group would have access to the necessary resources. Maybe with the backing (and the resources) of a state, terrorists would have a better shot. However, there don’t seem to be many advantages for a state sponsoring a non-state terrorist group. The state could perhaps keep its ‘hands clean,’ but by giving or helping a terrorist group get a nuclear weapon the sponsor faces the possibility that the terrorist group could give-up its sponsor or even use the weapon on the sponsor. I think it is hard to trust a terrorist group.

    This is just one thought about nuclear terrorism. Do other people think this threat is over-hyped? Or even not taken seriously enough?

  6. To egelb, I have to argue otherwise. While the nuclear weapons we have under our vessel are technologically advanced, missiles and delivery systems included, most of that sophistication is not necessary if the main objective is to cause heavy damage to civilian areas.

    To cause a nuclear explosion is not beyond reach of terrorist groups: instead of to stealing, forcing, or persuading a government entity for pre-made weapons, they have the option of building their own. Enriched uranium and plutonium is transported and used for energy purposes, and there does exist black markets for the material. There are individuals and groups in possession of over a kilogram, which is more than enough to warrant worry, and terrorist groups are probably their target customers.

    The danger behind terrorism is that they are outside conventions and diplomacy. They don’t need “big weapons” or any displays of power to bring select government and corporation buildings down. Small, sufficient bombs and several willing individuals are enough.

    I have to remember just how fragile global economies are: if the collapse of a few banking companies in 2008/09 can thrust us into a recession that dominoes over to Europe and Asia, I have to wonder what would happen if nuclear bombs leaked to D.C., Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Chicago and Houston.

  7. I know little about nuclear black markets (for instance, who has over 1kg of fissile material?), but I generally agree with you over egelb so far as nuclear terrorism merits considerable concern. It is certainly very difficult to build a nuclear device; there’s a reason the Manhattan Project took years and a small army of the Allies’ brightest scientists. However, technological process and the dissemination of information has made a bomb’s construction far easier. The example that jumps to mind is the one Prof. Glaser mentioned in class about the Princeton JP that was sought out by the Pakistani government. Let us assume for a moment that the Princeton student’s design would have worked. In that case, the statement “Terrorists are unable to build a nuclear weapon given the right materials” requires the assumptions that (1) no terrorist can have the intelligence and background knowledge of a certain Princeton junior and (2) access to information has not improved radically in the last few decades despite new research and the advent of the Internet. I recognize that the statement I use here is a slightly more exaggerated version of what egelb is arguing and not what he is explicitly arguing. In fact, he fully recognizes that information is more available than ever. I also would be reluctant to go as far as you, Tianyuan, in arguing how easily terrorists could build a weapon. Groups like al-Qaeda have existed for decades and appear not to have succeeded building a weapon thus far.

    That being said, I am not willing to discount the risk as much as egelb does. As you allude to, Tianyuan, the damage from a nuclear explosion would have immense ramifications. I shudder to think what the world would be like if 9/11 had involved nuclear explosions in New York and Washington. An act of nuclear terrorism anywhere worldwide would cause not only immediate death and destruction but also substantial political fallout. If some radical group were to independently find a way to build or acquire a nuclear device and use it to bomb, say, Israel, then Israel is likely to respond with a nuclear strike on Iran; even if Iran was not involved in the radical group’s bomb, would you believe Iranian leaders if you were the Israeli PM in this situation? This would quickly spiral into global geopolitical speed chess with massive death tolls.

    My point is then that egelb is right that it is not easy or likely that a particular terrorist group will get a weapon anytime soon, but we cannot ignore the chance that a group acquires such a weapon and the impact one single act of nuclear terrorism could have.

    Just one more point to throw into the mix (and this is more of a response to egelb than Tianyuan): if nuclear terrorism wasn’t the top priority listed in the report we read, what should it have been? The previous editions came out in 1994 and 2001, and one or two things relevant to the report’s subject matter happened since 2001. Going back to the point raised by Eric in the initial prompt (that the process is politicized), not putting nuclear terrorism at the top of the list would have contradicted (or at least raised questions about) US policies in the last decade concerning everything from 2003 Iraq to why North Korea today should not have nuclear weapons. Even if the president and joint chiefs see China as the biggest nuclear threat in the future (a theoretically plausible yet entirely speculative supposition for which I offer no evidence), would the DOD put that in a public statement like this report? The document does not exactly sugarcoat all international dynamics (for instance, it still describes the need for deterrence in a general sense and how Russia is still the owner of a large nuclear arsenal), but I strongly suspect the authors wanted to make sure they did not antagonize any nation in particular. As such, there is a definite political element to what the report describes, and this could have impacted the order in which priorities were listed. Egelb might then not be wrong that the nuclear terror threat is played up to some extent in the document for political reasons. However, I stand by the view that nuclear terrorism is very concerning even if there is a chance that other nuclear topics possibly deserve equal or greater attention.

  8. [ Logistical point: If you are directly responding to a particular comment, you may want to consider the “Reply” function below each comment. That will allow your comment to pop up directly following the one to which you are responding. When you submit a response in the main box (“Join the discussion…”), it is harder to see who is responding to what and it is easier for people to see comments out of order.

    Map of conversation thus far, as I understand it: 1) thirose -> sstrauss -> JoeMargolies -> ckw; 2) egelb -> Thuanyuan Huang -> cmberger. I hope that helps. ]

  9. I have to disagree with your assertion that nuclear weapons would be outside the realm of possibility for a terrorist organization. I would argue that terrorist organizations represent one of the largest threats to US security (along with countries such as North Korea and Iran). Terrorist organizations not only have the capabilities to learn how to build bombs, but they also have access to black markets, as stated by Tianyuan.

    An important point that was raised by the NPR was the need to “creat[e] consequences for non-compliance” (10). In order for the US to halt nuclear proliferation, it must be willing to follow up on threats and take action against countries that violate nuclear arms agreements, either militarily or monetarily. The problem of enforcement becomes even more difficult when we are dealing with terrorist organizations because they lack land to attack and do not usually rely on the US for funding (through trade or other means).

  10. I would also have to disagree with this. In my opinion, nuclear terrorism is a much larger threat to national security than any threat of a nuclear war between world powers. I believe this is the case for two reasons:

    1) The relative simplicity (compared to the Manhattan Project) of designing and building a nuclear weapon. While the Manhattan Project may have taken the brightest minds years to finish, the main obstacles for them were the very theoretical basics of nuclear weapons. This information (the ‘how to’ of nuclear fission) is now widely known in the scientific community and could easily be obtained a rogue non-state actor. Furthermore, the example of a Princeton student who designed a simple bomb in their JP, which had enough potential to be confiscated by the US government, shows how accessible the information for actually constructing a functional bomb is. If a terrorist group got this information then all they would need is the material, which I don’t doubt they could source on the black market or from a rogue state like North Korea.

    Another point on this is that the relatively high threat of a terrorist group doesn’t stem from the actual size of the bomb but rather the likelihood that they would use it. A 1kt bomb in the hands of a terrorist group is infinitely more dangerous than a 1MT bomb in the hands of a nation. While there would be plenty of reasons for a country to not use their bomb, there would be little stopping a non-state actor.

    2) I think that you might be discounting a state providing a terrorist group with materials a little too hastily. While on the surface it might seem as though providing such a weapon would be difficult to do unnoticed, considering the difficulties that countries have had figuring out whether or not other countries like NK have nuclear programs, it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine that they could hand off a small amount of material or a small bomb without it being noticed. Also, there are no doubt stronger ties between states and certain terrorist groups that we are not fully aware of – ties that could possibly guarantee loyalty and prevent disclosures of the materials’ source.

  11. I agree with the other other comments enumerating reasons nuclear terrorism might pose a significant threat – namely the accessibility of information and materials necessary to create a nuclear weapon – but I’d like to add two more points in support of Eric’s original comment that a one-off attack is a greater threat than a nuclear war between two super-powers.

    1. The danger of a nuclear war between two superpower – as was present during the Cold War – stems partially from a tactic countries adopt called “tying hands.” Essentially, in order to demonstrate the seriousness of a threat, a country will announce it publicly so as to force their hand with follow through, if need be. With regards to nuclear warfare between two powerful countries, this tactic has diminished in the face of the ramifications such a scale of nuclear war would entail. When a country ties its hands, its reputation forces its follow through. When the result of such follow through might end the world, however, national pride might give way to reason.

    2. Though the scale of such a threat discussed above is enormous, the risk is diminishing. The same cannot be said for a terrorist organization. The damage of using one nuclear warhead would be great for the country affected but minimal compared with a full on nuclear war. Thus, logic and reason will not deter them. Thus, the question is not whether the incentives would line up but whether they would be able to access the materials and expertise necessary. I will not reiterate the other points made, but here is where I believe they prove significant.

    In sum, it is possible that the threat of nuclear terrorism is over hyped (I personally do not think so), but on a relative scale, it seems to be becoming more threatening and likely than a war between two super powers.

  12. I find the point that nuclear deterrence may not be relevant to non state actors to be very interesting and raises questions about what deterrence really means. If what deterrence means is to use signaling mechanisms to show that any attack on a country will have consequences that outweigh the benefits, then I am not sure if it follows that the non possibility of nuclear retaliation means that nuclear deterrence is impossible per say. I agree with you that nuclear deterrence may not be relevant to transnational terrorist groups, but do think there is a certain amount of pressure the United States’ military power exerts on those countries that are home to some of these terrorist groups most prominent chapters. Pakistan and Lebanon for example, do not want US military presence in their region, and may take anti terrorist steps just for that reason. This may be geared more towards conventional weapons strength, but nevertheless, I think the whole US military arsenal plays a role.

  13. I think it’s an important point to consider that the NPR states the US goal is to reduce, not remove, the salience of nuclear weapons. As pointed out by Nichols in his piece on nuclear strategy, nuclear weapons are as much a deterrent to war as a weapon. With the advent of nuclear power, during the Cold War the US and USSR were forced to fight proxy wars on their allies’ behalf or else risk Mutually Assured Destruction, self-defense being a natural instinct of humanity. Nuclear weapons dissuade both armed and non-armed states from engaging in large scale conflicts – paradoxically, their very existence dissuades their use. Thus, they still have an important role to play in national defense and maintaining a global balance of power. As long as other countries possess these weapons, the US must have them also or else risk losing superpower status. It is good policy, however, to reduce the total number of nuclear weapons and tightly control all information and resources regarding their production. Not only are nuclear weapons extremely expensive to procure and maintain (money that could be better spent on infrastructure or reducing poverty,) but it doesn’t take many of them to wipe out a country. True disarmament is not impossible, but extremely unlikely to happen anytime soon. And even if every weapon were destroyed, the knowledge would still exist on how to build one…

    Additionally, I would agree with the NPR’s assessment that nuclear terrorism is one of the largest threats the US faces. A terrorist group, whether independent or state-sponsored, doesn’t have to construct a fully functional nuclear weapon. Merely attaching a large amount of radioactive material to conventional explosives would be enough to create a “dirty bomb” – one designed, not to do incredible damage like a true nuclear weapon, but to scatter radioactive material over a large area, contaminating a large area with fallout and rendering it uninhabitable for years to come – not to mention the poisoned food, water, and medical conditions that would result. Terrorists and other non-state actors who lack the resources to construct a thermonuclear warhead could easily take this more cost-effective solution. As Tinyuan correctly states, a terrorist group doesn’t need to wipe out an entire city to sow fear and confusion.

  14. I agree with the idea that the United States’ current disarmament policies are not sufficient to reduce the prominence of nuclear weapons in international affairs. As the likelihood of nuclear war between superpowers is decreasing, the impending threat from small nations and terrorist groups is growing. In order to compensate for this adjustment, the US must alter current nuclear policy toward this shift. For example, action must be taken against terrorist groups and rising nuclear states that break nonproliferation agreements and impose the threat of nuclear attack. As these groups acquire greater access to nuclear materials, including the uranium and plutonium itself as well as the scientific information and test data needed to produce functional weapons, the threat to the United States intensifies. If they have a strong enough initiative to launch an attack, excessive damage and civilian losses can be felt, among other repercussions. The US, therefore, must take action against these groups to ensure compliance to arms agreements. Submission can be encouraged by confronting violators with economic or military impediments.

  15. I agree with Owen’s argument that nuclear terrorism is definitely one of the most important threats to national security that needs to be addressed. Given the fact that it is relatively easy for terrorists to design and build nuclear weapons, it seems clear to me that the U.S. should focus on preventing fissile material from being stolen in the first place. (Sstrauss also mentioned this briefly at the end of his comment). Preventive, rather than responsive, countermeasures to nuclear terrorism will provide long-term and sustainable nuclear security solutions.

    The very first step to building nuclear capability is to get a hold of sufficient fissile material. Without highly enriched uranium and plutonium, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to build any nuclear device. Therefore, preventing terrorists from acquiring these materials would significantly reduce the risk of terrorists exercising their nuclear powers. Although the U.S. (and other countries) have made significant efforts to secure and protect fissile material around the world, black markets for fissile material still exist and not all of Russia’s nuclear material has been secured (only 38% of Russia’s weapons-useable nuclear material had been protected as of 2003).

    Although there are definitely ways to acquire nuclear weapons that have already been built (and therefore do not require the possession of fissile material), putting up barriers and addressing the problem of fissile material security seems to be the most cost-effective and reasonable way to address the root of the problem. This would mean not only working to increase the protection of the stocks of fissile material, but also cooperating with other countries to reduce the total amount of fissile material available.

  16. I agree with Eric’s statement that the Nuclear Posture Review often seemed to strike a contradictory tone. On one hand, the U.S. is advocating for nuclear non-proliferation abroad, but, on the other hand, is also determined to maintain an effective stockpile for leverage and deterrence. Indeed, it does seem unlikely that, in a world where several superpower states still possess and maintain even the smallest–but still deadly–stockpile of arms, unarmed countries will be deterred from acquiring nuclear arms and countries with nuclear development programs will be deterred from halting their progress. The elimination of all nuclear weapons, especially, seems impossible.
    Thus, international relations giant Kenneth Waltz argued in a controversial article ( that the possession and acquisition of nuclear weapons by all, including countries like Iran, might actually lead to peace and nuclear stability more than fruitless efforts to stop armament and eliminate stockpiles. Drawing from case studies like Pakistan and India, he argues that “policymakers and citizens in the Arab world, Europe, Israel and the United States should take comfort from the fact that history has shown that where nuclear capabilities emerge, so, too, does stability. When it comes to nuclear weapons, now as ever, more may be better.” A very controversial position, his argument is not without reason though, especially acknowledging that positions on nuclear weapons such as that of the U.S. seem unlikely to facilitate total disarmament.

  17. Like several others who have posted before me, I too agree with NPR’s revised assessment of the nuclear challenges the U.S. currently faces. The fact that emerging rogue states and terrorist cells nowadays constitute the main threats to nuclear peace poses a couple of problems. Firstly, these organizations can be content with simply crafting and detonating a “dirty bomb”, which Reed talked about previously. This means that the quantity of fissile material they require can actually be quite low, making it easier to obtain. Secondly, they are harder to threaten than established international powers. This is because it is considerably more difficult to scare their population and membership respectively to the point that they demand that their decision-makers refrain from attacking a nuclear and military power such as the U.S.

    So how can the U.S. successfully address these new issues? This is a hard question to answer, no doubt. Whatever the solution, it is apparent that with these new threats the old nuclear prevention strategy based mostly on fear will not work. Rather, preventive measures will necessarily have to focus on making fissile material increasingly harder to obtain in the first place for rogue emerging countries and terrorist organizations.

  18. It is interesting to see the game-theory perspective of deterrence still in play in this work on arms reduction: If we reduce our stockpile, how can we be so sure that others will do so in good faith? Salience, indeed, is a part of the discussion, but so too is whether or not all nuclear nations—not just a few—will reduce stockpiles in good faith.

    I also see that in any event, nuclear-weapons policy needs to be geared toward nuclear non-proliferation, whether from actual states (i.e., Iran or North Korea), or by non-state actors, such as terrorists. The United States and other actors should work to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation and the possibility of nuclear materials (or even worse: actual weapons) from getting into the hands of terrorists or rogue actors. A background FAQ by the Council on Foreign Relations discusses “loose nukes” and some possible black market transactions of nuclear materials:

    Of course, one deterrent against possible terrorist use of a nuclear (or dirty) bomb is the massive retaliation that they would receive for such use. But a stumbling block is being able to assess who actually used such a weapon, when initial reactions may be to Russia or China (a la “Sum of All Fears”).

  19. Regarding the salience of nuclear weapons, a matter of great importance that is perhaps not as well addressed in the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review is, as okudalim mentions, assuring that nuclear-weapons stay out of the hands of ill-intentioned states and terrorist groups. That is, states such as North Korea and Iran and terrorist organizations should be more closely monitored than the United States or the U.K. The states that remain reluctant to make their nuclear programs as transparent as possibly do so for good reason–because they have something to hide. Thus, I think that before nations like the U.S. and Russia can really begin pioneering nuclear non-proliferation efforts, they must negotiate with the states that are more likely to use nuclear materials for military purposes and work to convince theses states to increase transparency in their programs.

  20. I hate to be so bleak, but I am skeptical whether, at this point in time, there is any way to actually eradicate the long-term threat of a nuclear attack, and find nuclear non-proliferation agreements to be an undesirable foreign policy goal (within reason).

    Many other posters have noted the conciliatory tone of the NPR report, arguing for both continued deterrence and non-proliferation. I think that this is a far more troubling fact than it appears on the surface. This is because it seems to illustrate the fact that addressing the threats of a state-initiated nuclear war and nuclear terrorism seem, to me, diametrically opposed goals whose risks are negatively associated–in other words, as the risk of one is lowered, the other’s risk increases. Why? Think about 1945: the atomic bomb has just been created, but there are only several and it is only held by the United States. The risk for nuclear terrorism in this initial state is next to none, since it would be very difficult for non-state actors to obtain a weapon, but the risk of state use is considerable, since one state possesses the weapon and a significant strategic advantage, since there is no chance of equal retaliation if they use the bomb. To reduce the risk of a state-based nuclear attack and limit that strategic advantage, which at this state is considerable, that state’s enemies are driven to possess their own bomb, a strategy called deterrence that is well documented in the NPR report and elsewhere. This reduces the likelihood of a state-based attack but dramatically increases the global supply of fissile material, and by extension, the likelihood that a non-state actor can obtain a nuclear weapon and deploy it.

    What does this mean for the future? I would argue that the opposite of this situation is true: if the threat of nuclear terrorism is to be addressed, the global supply of nuclear warheads must be decreased. However, as we draw closer to the initial state of nuclear warfare, where states possess few, if any, warheads, it becomes far more strategically advantageous for states to build up their supply. For this reason, I have a hard time believing the world will ever reach an equilibrium where the threats of both nuclear terrorism and state-based nuclear attacks are minimized. As such, I would argue that the current state of affairs, which trades a relatively high degree of risk of nuclear terrorism for a relatively low risk of state-initiated nuclear warfare, is the optimal state, since it minimizes risk of the far more catastrophic situation (one where global destruction is possible) for a much smaller-scale situation (one where a maximum of 8-10 million die). Of course, I acknowledge that there are certain steps to be taken that can limit the likelihood of nuclear terrorism without allowing for a proportional growth in the likelihood of state-based attacks, like a greater global nuclear regulatory presence.

  21. I’m afraid I don’t fully follow your logic about how an equilibrium between minimizing nuclear strikes from both state and non-state actors is possible. You state that the more nuclear weapons states create, the more chances there are for a non-state actor to obtain one, because the global supply of fissile material is higher. Fair enough. You also claim this lowers the possibility of a state-ordered nuclear strike, as deterrence is a powerful strategy. That is also a fair argument to make. But, I don’t fully follow your logic for why state actors can’t decrease their nuclear stockpiles. The logic you are using seems to be cold war logic: attempting to build more weapons to prevent the other powers from having more than you. But we are living in a post-Cold War era. States that nominally have no quarrel with each other should feel comfortable to subject themselves to treaties that lower the global stockpile of nuclear material. Your example of why nuclear non-proliferation is not possible is post-1945. But this is 2014, and I feel that our policy must adapt and fit the times we are living in.

  22. Okudalim mentions that one stumbling block to retaliation is being able to assess who used a nuclear weapon. Though this could be a problem, it is something partially addressed in the report. The NPR recommends expanding nuclear forensics for further research into identifying the source of nuclear material (vii). Once the source of the material is determined, one would be closer to identifying which nation or actor used the weapon (or where the weapon was obtained from). I believe a key component of this research involves greater transparency of nuclear states-into their plans, processes, etc., especially states such as China and Iran. Once more information is available about these states, further research can be conducted that would allow material to be classified as being produced in those states.

  23. We spent much time in class and in our readings learning about the harmful consequences of nuclear weapons development. One of the most interesting points in our discussion was that the actual effect of nuclear radiation only accounts for 15% of the total damage. The rest of the damage comes directly from the air blast and heat, which can be delivered just as efficiently by an advanced conventional weapon. What, then, is the actual significance of reducing, but never eliminating nuclear weapons? The 15% radiation? How much more can this 15% radiation actually do for a country in war, as opposed to our increasingly advanced conventional weapons which can deliver essentially the same damage through air/heat blast? Is the name “nuclear weapon” now only a psychological weapon that strikes terror in the imagination of potential enemies, when in reality, conventional weapons can be just as destructive and effective in war? What, other than some twisted sense of psychological benefit, is there to being able to unleash radioactive death upon a potential enemy, as opposed to destroying a potential enemy just as thoroughly with a conventional weapon? Has the destructive potential of conventional weapons surpassed that of nuclear weapons yet? Or is the psychological “terror” of nuclear weapons something that can never be overcome by conventional weapons? (For some reason, there seems to be a lasting impression that spooks people into thinking that nuclear weapons are SO MUCH WORSE than conventional weapons, which in reality have just as much potential to kill the enemy. And killing the enemy, at the end of the day, is the ultimate goal) In other words, even in the case of negative security assurance, what is so terrible about not having nuclear weapons if 21st century conventional weapons can deliver just as much physical impact in retaliation even in the case of a preemptive nuclear strike (though maybe without the psychological punch.)

    On a different note, I also want to point out a contradiction in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The article continues to emphasize that the United States must focus on assuring our non-nuclear allies and partners that they can always count on the United States for security and will never have to develop nuclear weapons of their own. At the same time, the measure advocates the reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in US military strategy. How effective and trustworthy (from the perspective of US allies) is a decreasingly nuclear US umbrella when Chinese strategic prospects for nuclear development remain unclear and North Korea keeps testing nuclear missiles? Japan has recently expressed its desire to develop nuclear weapons and South Korea has mulled over a nuclear program of its own multiple times in the past. Can the United States ever decrease its nuclear arsenal without politically and diplomatically alarming US allies in South Korea and Japan who have given up their own nuclear programs on the condition of US nuclear power?

  24. I agree with you that the NPR goals are sometimes rather contradictory, calling for disarmament while strengthening and modifying nuclear weapons at the same time. As paradoxical as it sounds, I think this is the most we could do as public policy, given all the historical and political contexts. I think hardly anyone would be so optimistic as to think that the world can actually disarm ALL weapons in the near future. Given all the security risks and the capability to create more even after total elimination of nuclear weapons, no state (USA, Russia, China) would be up for the risk. I think these seemingly contradictory policy goals are more pragmatic ways to be sensitive to political decisions and create environment to slowly move towards nuclear power reduction. Even thought the ultimate goal in NPR is to accelerate the disarmament process, I don’t think the ultimate, realistic end is full disarmament, but movement towards it. I would agree with you that NPR may not accelerate the process as much as what people hope for, but I see these comprehensive policies as the best way to move towards the goal within the international context. In my limited understanding of policy concerns, I don’t see what other choices could possibly accelerate the process without increasing risks and political instability.

  25. It is interesting that this situation is presented as a paradoxical or irreconcilable difference between the goal of disarming states on one hand and preparing for/modifying national strategy for smaller non-state nuclear attacks on the other. While I agree with the general stance of the NPR that real progress (assuming progress means disarmament) cannot be made until corresponding efforts from countries like Russia and China, it does not seem to me that the major obstacle to this are the potential terrorist attacks we imagine may be lying in the shadows. Because of the very nature of terrorist attacks, it seems extremely unlikely that the appropriate response to some sort of nuclear attack by a terrorist group would be to retaliate with a nuclear warhead. By definition terrorist groups present no clear target, at least not a geographic one, and using nuclear weapons in response, even if the initial attack was nuclear, would probably result in much more harm than good. If we are currently concerned about the potential of nations, mainly superpowers, having the capability to severely damage each other through the use of these weapons as a result of “mutually assured destruction”, imagine the political storm that would erupt if the US responded to a non-state attack with a nuclear weapon (almost certainly killing innocent citizens of a particular nation that may not have had anything at all to do with the attack).

    While one cannot dismiss the political complexities of this disarmament effort and, as many have said, it seems unlikely that true global disarmament will ever occur (at least while nuclear weapons are considered so powerful) I do think that we can separate the issue entirely from that of non-state actors getting access to these technologies (in terms of response to such attacks, obviously if terrorist groups gain access to nuclear technologies as a result of some country’s refusal to disarm then this would be relevant). In the end, while the word “nuclear” is used to cautiously in the political spectrum, these weapons are ultimately just tools for destruction and terrorists groups should be dealt with just like they are dealt with in other instances of violence, it need not dictate major international policy elsewhere.

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