This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

U.S. nuclear strategy for the 21st century

Republican presidential candidates before the start of another debate on Tuesday, November 22, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The GOP national security debate last on Tuesday night was dynamic, raucous and telling for what it revealed about the state of strategic thinking in national security.

Though their approaches differed sharply, the candidates all expressed a deep concern about the U.S. approach to Pakistan and Afghanistan, focusing in particular on the security of Pakistan’s nuclear sites. There were also exchanges about the withdrawal plan from Afghanistan and what the Defense Department’s budget should be.

These are all pressing issues. The U.S. faces very real and frightening threats. But the military remains stuck in the Cold War — which ended 20 years ago next month — and has not kept pace with the changing nature of strategic threats.

As an example, the American nuclear arsenal is badly mismatched to the nuclear threats we face. We face rogue states that are seeking to acquire nuclear weapons; materials that go toward building nuclear weapons in unsafe areas; the potential for regional conflicts to go nuclear; nuclear states trying to build more weapons to create leverage over the United States; and the potential for terrorist organizations to use nuclear weapons (a recurring theme at the debate last night).

But none of those threats necessitates a massive nuclear deterrent of thousands of warheads ready to launch at the drop of a hat. We simply don’t need an enormous nuclear complex to deter current threats and to preserve the right of action to respond to new ones.

This fundamental problem applies to the defense budget debates writ large. Both parties have neglected strategic, long-term thinking in the partisan squabbles over arbitrary defense budgetary issues. We haven’t decided where America stands in the world, or how it should respond to threats, which makes the bickering over defense spending premature.

Last night, the GOP candidates acted out the uncertainty about America’s role in the world: opinions varied from being forward deployed and active in many regions of the planet to adopting a hands-off approach. It’s healthy to have this debate in public, and the voters will decide which candidate best represents their preferences on this front. But this debate has to happen first, before we start talking about the budget, about threats, and about any specific plan for Afghanistan.

Looking at the nuclear arsenal, the scope is astounding: the U.S. is set to spend about $700 billion on nuclear weapons and their associated programs over the next decade. That astounding sum includes the weapons themselves, maintaining nuclear materials, and extra facilities to handle everything, along with new delivery platforms being budgeted like submarines, bombers and missiles.

In short, it is an arsenal designed to fight the Soviet Union, and not to respond to the smaller state or terrorist challenges that make up the current nuclear threat. But because the arsenal is neither designed nor budgeted with America’s long-term role in the world clearly defined, it could potentially stay that way. The Soviet Union is gone, but it (or a phantom “threat” of a similar scope) still dominates the budgetary discussions.

There is no need for a massive nuclear arsenal in the 21st century. We can maintain a deterrent with a smaller force, and we can spend the money we save on other programs elsewhere that are more responsive to national security concerns. That better use of the money remains up for debate: it might be toward other programs within the Department of Defense or it might be toward social programs or alleviating the tax burden. That is part of this larger debate about the role America should play in the world we so desperately need.

What is important about the debate right now is that it is happening. It’s refreshing to see such varied approaches argued so forcefully at a primary debate. It means we as a country still have the capacity to reexamine who we are and where we want to be. And despite everything else we may find frustrating about our political process that is a very good place to be.



  • davidsteven

    I wish I could share your optimism. But I reckon that any suggestion of significantly shifting – let alone cutting – military spending will be as toxic in the Republican primary as being nice to immigrants. Different rules apply to Ron Paul, of course.

  • JoeyBHollywood

    Honestly, if we invested in the Teams & Special Forces we wouldn’t need all this Defense spending.

  • guestie

    It’s not about defense needs.  It’s about what the contractors of the military-industrial complex want.  They have obtained the level of power that President Eisenhower warned about, and beyond.  They do not have to worry about U.S. national security because they can move themselves and their families offshore if things start to get hot.

  • Mdfh01

    war is a racket

  • Mdfh01

    “Madame Speaker, I have a few questions for my colleagues. What if our foreign policy of the past century is deeply flawed and has not served our national security interests? What if we wake up one day and realize that the terrorist threat is a predictable consequence of our meddling in the affairs of others and has nothing to do with us being free and prosperous? What if propping up oppressive regimes in the Middle East endangers both the United States and Israel? What if occupying countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and bombing Pakistan is directly related to the hatred directed toward us? What if some day it dawns on us that losing over 5,000 American military personnel in the Middle East since 9/11 is not a fair trade off for the loss of nearly 3,000 American citizens no matter how many Iraqi, Pakistani, or Afghan people are killed or displaced? What if we finally decide that torture even if called “enhanced interrogation technique” is self destructive and produces no useful information and that contracting it out to a third world nation is just as evil? What if it is finally realized that war and military spending is always destructive to the economy? What if all war time spending is paid for through the deceitful and evil process of inflating and borrowing? What if we finally see that war time conditions always undermine personal liberty? What if conservatives who preach small government wake up and realize that our interventionist foreign policy provides the greatest incentive to expand the government? What if conservatives understood once again that their only logical position is to reject military intervention and managing an empire throughout the world? What if the American people woke up and understood that the official reasons for going to war are almost always based on lies and promoted by war propaganda in order to serve special interests? What if we as a nation came to realize that the quest for empire eventually destroys all great nations? What if Obama has no intention of leaving Iraq? What if a military draft is being planned for, for the wars that will spread if our foreign policy is not changed? What if the American people learn the truth that our foreign policy has nothing to do with national security and that it never changes from one administration to the next? What if war and preparation for war is a racket serving the special interests? What if president Obama is completely wrong about Afghanistan and it turns out worse than Iraq and Vietnam – put together? What if Christianity actually teaches peace and not preventive wars of aggression? What if diplomacy is found to be superior to bombs and bribes in protecting America? What happens if my concerns are completely unfounded? Nothing. But what happens if my concerns are justified and ignored? Nothing good.”~ U.S. congressman Ron Paul before the United States House of Representatives (2/12/2009)