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White House Pledges Cuts to Nuclear Stockpile

April 6, 2010 at 11:48 AM EDT
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The Obama administration has rolled out a new roadmap for limiting American nuclear arsenals and promoting the goal of a nuclear-free world. Jeffrey Brown gets two points of view on arms control from nuclear experts.

GWEN IFILL: The Obama administration rolls out its nuclear weapons strategy.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was one year ago in Prague that President Obama pledged to work towards a nuclear-free world, a move that helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize in December.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, the administration took another step toward that goal, spelling out current risks and new policies in a document called the nuclear posture review, or NPR.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. secretary of defense: The NPR provides a road map for implementing President Obama’s agenda for reducing nuclear risks to the United States, our allies and partners, and the international community. This review describes how the United States will reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons, with a long-term goal of a nuclear-free world.

JEFFREY BROWN: The review, required by Congress, is the first by this administration, but the third since the end of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union faced each other with thousands of nuclear weapons on high alert.

Officials today emphasized that current threats are different.

ROBERT GATES: The review rightly places the prevention of nuclear terrorism and proliferation at the top of the U.S. nuclear policy agenda. Given al-Qaida’s continued quest for nuclear weapons, Iran’s ongoing nuclear efforts, and North Korea’s proliferation, this focus is appropriate and, indeed, essential — an essential change from previous reviews.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among other changes, a declaration that the U.S. will neither use nor threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries.

But the U.S. reserves the right to make any adjustment to this policy in the case of biological weapons threats. And the new policy doesn’t apply to any countries out of compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.

ROBERT GATES: If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is that, if you’re going to play by the rules, if you’re going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you, and — and that’s covered in the NPR. But if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The review also declared that the U.S. will not develop new nuclear weapons, while increasing investment to maintain the current arsenal.

It stopped short of declaring deterrence from nuclear attack to be the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a move pushed by some arms control advocates.

Today’s release is the first of three major events over the coming days that will focus on nuclear policy. On Thursday, President Obama and Russian President Medvedev will meet again in Prague to sign a new strategic arms treaty to scale back the number of deployed long-range warheads by 30 percent. That treaty will require a two-thirds Senate vote for ratification.

And next Monday and Tuesday, President Obama will host a Washington summit on nuclear security with more than 40 world leaders.

And, for more on all this, we get two views. Joseph Cirincione is the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that promotes a nuclear-free world. He’s worked on Capitol Hill and has written extensively on nuclear issues. Stephen Rademaker has served in the administrations of both George H.W. and George W. Bush, focusing on arms control and proliferation issues.

Welcome to both of you.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, president, Ploughshares Fund: A pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, on the issue of assessment of the nuclear threat today, shifting this emphasis, Mr. Cirincione, do — do they have it right?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: I think they have got it exactly right. We no longer live in a world where the main threat is global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is gone.

And the new threats are chilling, but on a different scale, a different order of magnitude, the threat of nuclear terrorism, al-Qaida with a nuclear bomb, or new nuclear states. And what is sort of transformational about this posture review is orienting our nuclear strategy towards defeating these threats.

This is the lens that we will now look through to judge: Do we need these weapons? What’s their purpose? Are they helping to reduce the nuclear risks to the United States?

JEFFREY BROWN: To make the right policy.

So, do you agree that’s the right lens, this new emphasis?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER, former Bush administration official: I think the emphasis is correct, at least in terms of what the primary threat is. But I do think it’s important to note that the implications of that are less than suggested.

If you look at the document itself, the vast majority of it is directed toward policies that the United States would pursue vis-a-vis other countries, not toward terrorist groups. So, it’s all well and good to recognize that, increasingly, we need to worry about weapons of mass destruction, and particularly nuclear weapons, falling into the hands of terrorist groups, but the policies, the types of weapons we deploy in the nuclear area are not ones that we’re going to use against terrorist groups.

They’re ones that we would use against other countries. And, so, as a result, the vast majority of the verbiage in the report is about the way we would structure our forces for use against other countries.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about this emphasis on trying to limit the use and narrowing the overall role of nuclear weapons in our military capability and arsenal?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: See, this is the pivot that this posture review is making.

We have these existing weapons. And it says, as long as we have them, they’re going to be the best in the world. We’re going to make them safe and secure and as modern as we need them to be. But we don’t need as many anymore. We have 10,000 nuclear weapons now. Half of those are in the active stockpile. About half of those are actually deployed, ready to use.

For what? What nuclear mission requires 2,000, 3,000 weapons? You can take those down and change the missions. You no longer need to be targeting these weapons on states that don’t have nuclear weapons or that have become our allies over the last 10 to 20 years and are no longer adversaries.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: That’s the pivot that they’re making towards this new direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, those — I mean, those are the key — I mean, when you boil this down to some of the key questions, what are nuclear weapons for; when would they be used?

So, what do you think of this effort to kind of limit the potential uses of…

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, again, the principal purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter states. I think al-Qaida is not too worried that, if they attacked us, we would use a nuclear weapon against them.

We wouldn’t know where to find them, probably. And whatever target there was wouldn’t be one that was really suitable for attack by a nuclear weapon. It would be a different type of target. So, the purpose of nuclear weapons is to attack the kinds of targets that state adversaries would present to us.

And, to my mind, you know, there’s a lot less change in this report than meets the eye. I think, in a lot of ways, it was drafted to suggest greater change than is really there, when one parses the exceptions, and the exceptions to the exceptions that are found, that are embedded.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean there’s enough wiggle room or whatever room to make decisions?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, Joe, for example, just talked about the changes in declaratory nuclear policy, that is to say, the situations in which we say we might consider using nuclear weapons against another country.

And, when you parse it, it looks like, really, the only change is, whereas, in the past, we held out the possibility that we would retaliate against chemical weapons used against us with nuclear weapons, we’re no longer doing that.

But, for biological weapons, that threat remains on the table. And we say we would only use these weapons against other nuclear-armed countries, with the exception of countries that are not in compliance with the NPT. And Iran and North Korea are obviously on that list. But I think there are other countries that may be on that list. It’s undefined.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: If I were Syria, I wouldn’t — if I were Syria, I wouldn’t really know whether I’m in the orbit of risk or not.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: If I were Syria, I would be checking with the IAEA to see if I’m in compliance or not.

But Steve is right. It narrows the list down. So, really, we’re talking about Iran and North Korea as the only states that we might target that don’t have nuclear weapons, or a significant nuclear weapon.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you say these definitions are important as changes?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: I do, because here’s the difference, particularly when compared to the previous nuclear posture review done in the Bush administration. That posture review saw expanded missions for nuclear weapons. We were going to use these things to go against bunkers, and trucks, mobile targets, unexpected military developments.

They wanted new kinds of nuclear weapons, low-yield weapons, earth-penetrating weapons, reliable replacement weapons. It was an expansion of the goals and missions. This is night and day. This is exactly the opposite.

And this is what the military wants. They see these weapons as basically obsolete, with fewer and fewer rationales, reasons for existence, fewer and fewer places where they would actually use them. If we shrink their roles, shrink their numbers, we build up the kind of international cooperation we need to go after the real threats.

And that’s what’s going to happen next week with the security summit. Secure the nuclear materials, and then build up the barriers to stop other states from getting them, that’s the new security agenda.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the decision here not to build new nuclear weapons, while investing in the current?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: My personal opinion is that the review goes too far in that direction. But, again, there’s a lot of wiggle room embedded in the position taken in the nuclear posture review.

It says, yes, we will not develop new nuclear weapons, but we will refurbish existing ones and in fact potentially replace components. And, in replacing components, you know, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to make changes to the weapons themselves.

So, I think people like Joe are probably uncomfortable with the drafting of the report in…

JEFFREY BROWN: It doesn’t sound like it.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: No. See, I think this is the — this is the kind of consensus that you need to move forward on national security.

JEFFREY BROWN: You would like them to have gone further in terms of limiting…

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Sure. Sure, absolutely. And I have — I have written draft nuclear posture reviews that say the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to defer a nuclear attack, and no other reason.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they didn’t want to go that far.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: And it could have gone further. It could have gone faster.

But this is the real world. This is where you have got to make compromises. And this is the new nuclear security consensus that the military is completely behind. The secretary of defense today and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are now solidly behind the ratification of a comprehensive test ban treaty.

Vice Chairman Cartwright couldn’t have been clearer: no new nuclear weapons, no new testing, no new missions. Now, do you build in escape clauses, in case the unexpected happens? Of course. But that’s only sensible national security policy.

I think that’s why this is such a middle-of-the-road document. But that middle of the road has moved a long way from where we were 10 years ago. This is a road that’s leading to the future of fewer nuclear weapons, maybe eventually their elimination.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we just mentioned, this is one of three big events over the coming days. Do you — do you see the kind of transformation when you put them altogether, or do you see a continuation of policy?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: I think, certainly, we will have much more continuity than — than change.

The — the nuclear security summit next week will be a good event. And I think we will see from that a renewed international commitment to protecting potential fissile material sources from diversion to terrorist purposes. That’s a worthy objective that we have been pursuing for nearly two decades now. So, the renewed commitment to it will be fine.

I will be surprised if any new programs emerge, any new policies, really, maybe some self-imposed deadlines for achieving goals. But, you know, basically, it’s going to be a recommitment to what’s already been — been happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: We follow all of them.

Stephen Rademaker and Joseph Cirincione, thank you both very much.