His detractors see it as, at best, another sign of ivory tower idealism, and, at worse, as a surrender of America’s most potent tools. The Nobel Peace Prize
Committee, meanwhile, praises him for a “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”
Both sides misunderstand the consequences of a nuclear-free world. Politics and technology make it preferable for the United States to eliminate the Bomb, not out of generosity, but to strengthen its military might. There are multiple scenarios in which the use of nuclear weapons could go wrong. Consider these three:
The US might resort to atomic warfare:
1. If an enemy nation decided to engage in a massive act of aggression against vital US interests, generally defined as the US homeland or that of America’s closest allies.
The logic is that no one will ever think of attacking the US given the certainty of immediate and terminal punishment, with possession of the Bomb.
But today, there are nonnuclear options that can, in Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay’s immortal words, “Bomb them back into the Stone Age.” These include nonnuclear attacks on electric grids (a very soft version of these were used against Serbia during the Kosovo war), destroying telecommunication networks, and, if one wishes to kill millions of enemy citizens, high-precision weapons that can wreak havoc on dams, bridges, chemical factories, oil refineries, nuclear reactors, water treatment plants, toxic dumps, and so forth, thereby causing countless fatalities.
These options can be calibrated, thus lending credibility to US deterrence even in cases of only relatively minor attacks. With nuclear devices, however, even if only a single small-yield device is fired, it crosses an apocalyptic threshold making it extremely difficult for any US president – be he a George W. Bush or a Barack Obama – to credibly deter anything but a genocidal attack on the US by brandishing the threat of atomic revenge.
2. If there was a large army in the field that posed a huge threat.
Today, though, sensors and guided munitions make it possible to stop the enemy and minimize collateral damage, a vital goal if – as in Europe then and possibly in Korea or Taiwan in the future – invaders cross into friendly territory. An additional problem with the tactical nuclear option is the risk of uncontrollable escalation into Armageddon, which is not a far-fetched end once nuclear warfare is opened. What sane US president would want to face that?
3. If there became a pressing need to obliterate deeply buried and armored targets such as the enemy’s leadership’s bunkers and facilities manufacturing or developing weapons of mass destruction and other high-value items.
Using atomic devices to achieve these goals is fraught with dangers. Leadership decapitation – as was attempted with conventional means against Saddam Hussein – often postulates the autocrats will be replaced by statesmen, enjoying popular support, willing to make peace with America.
Starting this process with a nuclear strike is not the best way to generate a wave of pro-American sentiment. As for wiping out WMD sites, the same issues may apply, as well as the risk of nuclear contamination.
Fortunately for the US, work on advanced nonnuclear penetrators is proceeding apace. While the details are classified, it is clear that the combination of weaponry with higher precision, greater penetration capability, and more potent explosives is moving quickly.
The ability to compel enemies of the US to alter their behavior with these nonnuclear systems is far more plausible than with nuclear weapons, since America’s enemies rightly doubt that Washington will ever pay the political price of a nuclear first strike.
A nonnuclear environment will favor the technologically advanced, since postnuclear systems are more sophisticated. As the country with the largest military- industrial complex, the US would benefit the most from the transition to a postnuclear world. Mr. Obama’s detractors say this push to rid the world of nuclear weapons is dangerous, or a product of a lofty attitude. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee says this is a noble goal. But it’s much more probable that Obama sees just how much more powerful the US can be with a nonnuclear sword held over its enemies’ heads.
Achieving a total ban on nuclear weapons will not be easy. But working toward it is a logical goal for the US.
Even if negotiations fail, the process will encourage more US research and development on nonnuclear alternatives that, even absent the abolition of nuclear explosives, will strengthen US military capabilities and deterrence.