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October 14, 2008


Contact: Sean Harder, 563-264-1500

New Understanding of Security Threats
Must Drive Rethink of US Nuclear Weapons Policy

Muscatine, Iowa – A changing US strategic policy must be driven by a new understanding of the security threats facing the United States and the relative strengths and weaknesses in the measures adopted to meet them.

The overall strategic picture is trending along a set of particular pathways, characterized by:

  • Some states moving to reduce the saliency of nuclear weapons.
  • Some states at or moving toward a high saliency of nuclear weapons.
  • Proliferation, both to new states and also to nonstate actors.
  • Inadvertent and accidental diffusion of nuclear technology and materials to additional states and nonstate actors.
  • A thoroughly more robust dispersion of civilian nuclear technology and materials, driven by the global need for new and dramatically larger sources of cheap and carbon-neutral energy.

Current policy will not be sustainable to achieve a secure nuclear future for the United States and the global community, and the United States must couch its nuclear decision making with the above indicators in mind.

A group of nuclear policy experts, academics, and NGO representatives met to discuss these issues at "US Strategic Posture and Conventional Capabilities," a roundtable at the Stanley Foundation's 49th annual Strategy for Peace Conference October 10-12, 2008, at Airlie Center near Warrenton, Virginia.

Issues discussed ranged from the current US nuclear doctrine to what steps the US should take toward continuing its support of a world without nuclear weapons. Stemming from the 2001 US Nuclear Posture Review, participants drew upon areas that need to be underscored looking toward a new administration that will develop its own Nuclear Policy Review in 2009.

Along with the growing realization of the above nuclear indicators, it is also true that military force in the 21st century is headed toward being a smaller subset of US foreign policy, and strategic utility of the unilateral use of force is declining.

In this strategic environment, roundtable participants achieved consensus that the main goal of US strategic policy should be to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, either by state or nonstate actors. Equally true, in this changing security environment, nuclear weapons in 2008 have no military utility, only political utility. The challenge is how to reduce the political utility of nuclear weapons in a manner that is strategically stable.

In order to move toward addressing this strategic environment, participants made a number of concrete recommendations for an incoming administration to consider:

  • As a path toward reducing political saliency, a statement that limits the utility of US nuclear weapons to a weapon of last resort would signal US leadership.
  • Prior to the 2010 NPT Review Conference, a consensus statement by members of the P-5 that relegates nuclear weapons as weapons of defensive last resort would be helpful in providing a leadership role to the global community.
  • A US declaratory statement that circumscribes the purpose of US nuclear weapons, setting the requirements for nuclear forces with a stringent examination of nuclear missions. This will help reduce the saliency of US nuclear weapons and likely to lead to a reduction in strategic forces.
  • As specific opportunities for continuing the downward trend in its overall stockpile, the US should engage Russia on both extending the verification provisions of START and by considering further reductions beyond the levels agreed to in the Moscow Treaty. 
  • A new 2009 NATO Strategic Concept can make a significant contribution toward reducing the salience of nuclear weapons by considering restricting strategic NATO policy to conventional use.
  • A new administration must establish early strategic consultations with Russia and China on matters of strategic stability. As one indication of the immediacy of this need, it should be noted that the Russian strategic policy, including its nuclear policy, is highly contingent on US strategic policy—both conventional and nuclear.
  • As part of the current Triad, a new administration should conduct a thorough scrub of the entire set of missile defense programs for both technical and operational scrutiny.
  • As a new administration considers the future of the nuclear stockpile, it should produce a statement supporting the goal of moving to zero and a stockpile pathway consistent with those aims. Bolstering current US policy, characteristics of this pathway would include a stockpile that is safe, secure, and reliable without adding additional nuclear missions or needing new testing.
  • The lack of congressional knowledge on issues of strategic matters has resulted in a lack of proper oversight of US nuclear policy. New mechanisms should be considered—such as a joint arms control observer group or eventually a more formal structure, such as a Joint Select Committee on Strategic Policy.
  • As the United States encourages the P-5 and the global community to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons, reducing its own view of nuclear saliency, it must be careful not to replace dependence on nuclear capabilities with conventional capabilities. International opinion and action is oftentimes more dependent, at least in the short term, on US conventional posture than nuclear policy.

Participants also noted several key questions that remain underexamined and ripe areas for future investigation. Among these are:

  • How would the United States practically achieve a change in US nuclear deterrence policy? Organizationally and operationally, what needs to change?
  • What are the operational and technical requirements that must be examined, outlined, and implemented in order to get very low levels of nuclear stockpiles or potentially zero (absolute or virtual)? Stockpile accountancy and dismantlement verification are key.

Working Paper:
Philip Coyle, Senior Advisor, Center for Defense Information, and Todd Fine, Global Zero, "US Nuclear Forces and Conventional Force Alternatives" (working paper)

The Stanley Foundation will release a more comprehensive report on this Strategy for Peace Conference discussion in the coming weeks.

This document summarizes the primary findings developed at the event. Participants neither reviewed nor approved this document. Therefore, it should not be assumed that every participant subscribes to all of its recommendations, observations, and conclusions.

About The Stanley Foundation
The Stanley Foundation seeks a secure peace with freedom and justice, built on world citizenship and effective global governance. It brings fresh voices, original ideas, and lasting solutions to debates on global and regional problems. The foundation is a nonpartisan, private operating foundation, located in Muscatine, Iowa, that focuses on peace and security issues and advocates principled multilateralism. Online at http://www.stanleyfoundation.org/.

About The Stanley Foundation
The Stanley Foundation seeks a secure peace with freedom and justice, built on world citizenship and effective global governance. It brings fresh voices, original ideas, and lasting solutions to debates on global and regional problems. The foundation is a nonpartisan, private operating foundation, located in Muscatine, Iowa, that focuses on peace and security issues and advocates principled multilateralism. Online at www.stanleyfoundation.org.

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