I don’t know if admitting this will make me look bad, but I suspect I’m not alone when I say: I knew close to nothing about nuclear weapons when I arrived at the Korbel School in 2011. Maybe that was a function of not hearing much about them as a student of international affairs in undergrad and as a Hill staffer with a foreign policy portfolio. When nukes came up, it was only in relation to Iran and The Bomb – admittedly fascinating, but relating more to big P politics than to nuts and bolts policy. For my generation, the Cold War ended and nukes went away. Except that they didn’t. Today, there are around 4,650 warheads in the U.S. stockpile. By 2018, under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), both U.S. and Russia are required to reduce their numbers of strategic nuclear weapons to about 1,550 each – still enough to annihilate each other, and the globe, many times over.
You are probably thinking one of two things: 1) I don’t know anything about this and it doesn’t affect me or 2) No less than POTUS said in Prague that the United States was going to take immediate steps to work toward a “world free of nuclear weapons”. The President’s vision was turned into concrete policy in his 2010 nuclear posture review (NPR), which had this to say:
By working to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and moving step-by-step toward eliminating them, we can reverse the growing expectation that we are destined to live in a world with more nuclear-armed states, and decrease incentives for additional countries to hedge against an uncertain future by pursuing nuclear options of their own (p. vi.)
We’ll get back to this.
To address those of you in the first camp: nuclear weapons matter, if for no other reason than their associated costs. Pick what kind of government spending matters to you most, whether it’s conventional weapons that will actually be used, money for our troops and equipment, or social services and social welfare programs. Now consider this: each year, the United States spends around $53 billion on strategic offensive nuclear forces, according to a study by the Stimson Center. Over the next decade, the study projected the costs between $352 and $392 billion. We’re not even talking about other parts of the nuclear enterprise, such as clean-up of nuclear sites and ballistic missile defense, which the Ploughshares Fund estimates at costs of about $60 billion per year. I am not suggesting eliminating nuclear weapons today, next year, etc. – I am just pointing out that they are not a trivial cost to U.S. taxpayers.
As for the other camp, of the the President has got this variety: talk is cheap, friends. Call it bureaucratic inertia or cognitive dissonance, but we, as a country, are saying one thing and doing another when it comes to nuclear weapons. In his Prague speech, President Obama said:
[M]y administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Applause.) After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.
Today, Senate ratification of CTBT is all but DOA.
So there is still reason to worry that nuclear weapons policy in Washington is business as usual. Along with everything else in the President’s time in office, we cannot blame him alone. But, there are other actions that appear to us civilians – those without access to information about ALL of the threats our country faces, I concede — more in his control. Take the nuclear employment strategy released in June 2013. Despite the 2010 pronouncement that the Pentagon would work to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy” – i.e., use nuclear weapons for a deterrence mission only — the 2013 guidance states, “we cannot adopt such a policy today.” The report did not explain why, and the American public deserves a clearer answer as to the circumstances under which their government would actually use nuclear weapons.
The Nuclear Missile Force failures (in 2008 and 2013) at Malmstrom and Minot AFB underscore the pressing need to reevaluate our nuclear weapons policies. Why for example, are our long-range, nuclear tipped missiles kept pointed at targets in the former Soviet Union in the first place? These are jobs that no one wants to do, is why, because the Cold War is O-V-E-R. On her show on August 14, Rachel Maddow pointedly said this:
Either we . . . hope that Minot and Maelstrom [sic] become the new A-game top of the class performers in the U.S. military because everybody is so psyched that nuclear bombs are the key to the future and all the brightest kids go there, or maybe alternatively, we might start to have a conversation about just not having quite so many of these bombs laying around to baby-sit anymore. When your nuclear weapons handlers are failing consistently, something really needs to change. There [are] a lot of places that can endure failure, nuclear weapons handling is not one of those areas.
Earlier this month, we marked the anniversaries of the only time in history nuclear weapons were used. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were FUBAR – to put it crassly. Today, nuclear weapons are 10-50 times more powerful than those dropped on Japan. So beyond their cost and their questionable value, let us not forget that these aren’t your grandma’s bombs – they are capable of devastation and suffering on a scale beyond anything else created by humankind. In this way, policy surrounding them deserves the public’s highest scrutiny. Again, do we get rid of nukes tomorrow? No. But as students of foreign policy, let’s remember that they’re still very important, even if the Cold War is over.