Saturday, April 15, 2006

Death of MAD

The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy

"During the Cold War, Washington relied on its nuclear arsenal not only to deter nuclear strikes by its enemies but also to deter the Warsaw Pact from exploiting its conventional military superiority to attack Western Europe. It was primarily this latter mission that made Washington rule out promises of 'no first use' of nuclear weapons. Now that such a mission is obsolete and the United States is beginning to regain nuclear primacy, however, Washington's continued refusal to eschew a first strike and the country's development of a limited missile-defense capability take on a new, and possibly more menacing, look. The most logical conclusions to make are that a nuclear-war-fighting capability remains a key component of the United States' military doctrine and that nuclear primacy remains a goal of the United States.

During the Cold War, MAD rendered the debate about the wisdom of nuclear primacy little more than a theoretical exercise. Now that MAD and the awkward equilibrium it maintained are about to be upset, the argument has become deadly serious. Hawks will undoubtedly see the advent of U.S. nuclear primacy as a positive development. For them, MAD was regrettable because it left the United States vulnerable to nuclear attack. With the passing of MAD, they argue, Washington will have what strategists refer to as 'escalation dominance' -- the ability to win a war at any level of violence -- and will thus be better positioned to check the ambitions of dangerous states such as China, North Korea, and Iran. Doves, on the other hand, are fearful of a world in which the United States feels free to threaten -- and perhaps even use -- force in pursuit of its foreign policy goals. In their view, nuclear weapons can produce peace and stability only when all nuclear powers are equally vulnerable. Owls worry that nuclear primacy will cause destabilizing reactions on the part of other governments regardless of the United States' intentions. They assume that Russia and China will work furiously to reduce their vulnerability by building more missiles, submarines, and bombers; putting more warheads on each weapon; keeping their nuclear forces on higher peacetime levels of alert; and adopting hair-trigger retaliatory policies. If Russia and China take these steps, owls argue, the risk of accidental, unauthorized, or even intentional nuclear war -- especially during moments of crisis -- may climb to levels not seen for decades.

Ultimately, the wisdom of pursuing nuclear primacy must be evaluated in the context of the United States' foreign policy goals. The United States is now seeking to maintain its global preeminence, which the Bush administration defines as the ability to stave off the emergence of a peer competitor and prevent weaker countries from being able to challenge the United States in critical regions such as the Persian Gulf. If Washington continues to believe such preeminence is necessary for its security, then the benefits of nuclear primacy might exceed the risks. But if the United States adopts a more restrained foreign policy -- for example, one premised on greater skepticism of the wisdom of forcibly exporting democracy, launching military strikes to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and aggressively checking rising challengers -- then the benefits of nuclear primacy will be trumped by the dangers."