NATO came into being for the essential purpose of creating a political and military counter weight to an aggressive post WWII Soviet Union. NATO doctrine assumed that should a massive invasion cross through the Fulda Gap, the traditional invasion route from the east; there was low confidence that a conventional military response would repel such an invasion. Doctrine called for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event that such an invasion was initially successful and NATO forces faced the potential of being overrun. The Russians knew the policy and did not tempt the nuclear fates. Soviets/Russians did not tempt the fates precisely because they knew the policy and they knew the capabilities were genuine!
The same deterrent effect exists in the context of Israel where it is generally assumed that Israel would deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the event that they were in jeopardy of being overrun by unified Arab military action. No such action has occurred since Israel was attacked by Syria and Egypt in 1973.
The recent policy changes and disclosures of U.S. nuclear policy are naïve, unnecessary and dangerous. It also does not appear that we are at the end point of policy changes. Reporting from Jonathan Alter suggests there is significant support within the administration for a blanket “no first strike” policy, publically stated.
This naïveté is especially disturbing in light of Russian announcements earlier this year revising their nuclear policy, (Stratfor) including use of nuclear weapons in regional conflicts. The new Russian policy is stark, in that it defines a broad range of circumstances that Russia sees as justification for use of nuclear options; this, in the context of an announced upgrading of the Russian nuclear arsenal. The U.S. on the other hand has refused to authorize testing of the aging nuclear arsenal to insure functionality.
Russia, North Korea, China and Iran are unlikely to respond to the “example” the administration hopes to set. We appear to be operating on the theory that our leadership in self imposed nuclear restriction will motivate others to limit and restrict nuclear activities. Leadership by example is a fine thing, but not out of context. American leadership on the issue simply does not trump the self interest of the critical parties.
The unfortunate reality is that non-threatening nations may very well respond to that leadership but others, those that can or intend to threaten, will view it as both a sign of weakness and as an opportunity. Nuclear policy and the intended fear it is supposed to generate should be less about attempting to set an example for miscreant dictatorships and more about threat assessment and U.S. self interest.
While the administration’s missile defense strategy is, in some quarters, justifiable and defensible what is clear is that it pushes the deployable functionality of the new strategy far into the future. Well beyond current timeline expectations related to Iran and North Korea.
Should the U.S. continue the current nuclear contraction the question occurs whether or not non-proliferation goals are actually enhanced? The fact is that we have an aging nuclear deterrent: the administration has decided not to pursue upgrades or functionality testing. Should Europe and/or Asian allies come to the opinion that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is full of holes will they move to create their own deterrent? Japan has concerns regarding North Korea; Europe is in range of a potential Iranian weapons, and face an ever more aggressive Russian bear. The threats against Israel are clear to all. Though less publicized, Iranian criticism of “moderate: Middle Eastern regimes including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have escalated based on Iran revisiting past peace agreements with Israel and sectarian competition with Saudi Arabia. To add a log to the fire, Secretary Clinton has offered the protections of the U.S. nuclear umbrella to nations in the Middle East.
John Kennedy put it clearly; “Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed” If one accepts, as have all administrations till now, the idea that overwhelming deterrence de-motivates serious bad behaviors the current policy is hard to fathom. It is further difficult to understand that even in the event the administration pursues an internal policy revision, why announce it? In a national security context ir fails to make strategic common sense. Why bet the farm on good intentions and symbolic gestures when there are no reciprocal gestures on the horizon?