The use of nuclear weapons should not be taken lightly. Their use, in fact, would be utterly horrifying. Let’s get that on the table right now.
That having been written, the Obama Administration’s decision to significantly limit the instances in which the United States would use nuclear weapons in self-defense is a serious mistake:
Mr. Obama’s strategy is a sharp shift from those of his predecessors and seeks to revamp the nation’s nuclear posture for a new age in which rogue states and terrorist organizations are greater threats than traditional powers like Russia and China.
It eliminates much of the ambiguity that has deliberately existed in American nuclear policy since the opening days of the cold war. For the first time, the United States is explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack.
Those threats, Mr. Obama argued, could be deterred with “a series of graded options,” a combination of old and new conventional weapons. “I’m going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure,” he said in the interview in the Oval Office.
There is no logical connection whatsoever between a particular country’s decision to sign on to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the decision to refrain from using nuclear deterrence in order to keep that country from launching a devastating non-nuclear attack on the United States. Any attack would likely be a biological or chemical one, or a cyberattack that may disrupt needed services, and cost scores of lives. Stepping away from the traditional nuclear posture that would have left the option of nuclear retaliation on the table in the event of a biological, chemical, or cyber attack may only serve to invite an attack somewhere down the road, with the perpetrator confident that he will not face nuclear weapons in retaliation. The Obama Administration may use conventional weapons in reply, but if a country like China perpetrates an attack, a conventional response may simply not be enough; it’s not as though the Chinese themselves don’t have a respectable conventional force in order to counter such an attack, American conventional military superiority notwithstanding.
This decision is of a piece with the Obama Administration’s stated desire to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth. It’s a nice sentiment, but nuclear weapons have kept the peace amongst nation-states by deterring devastating attacks. Gradually, however, that deterrent is being stripped away. Don’t be surprised if a less peaceful world results as a consequence.