The Obama administration released a new nuclear arms strategy on Tuesday. The Nuclear Posture Review narrows the use of nuclear weapons and says that the primary role of the U.S. nuclear posture is to deter an attack on the United States and prevent nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

In a video Q&A, George Perkovich analyzes U.S. strategy, nuclear deterrence, and national security. Perkovich contends that the new policy reflects the reality we live in today and gives momentum to President Obama’s long-term goal of living in a world without nuclear weapons.


What is the Nuclear Posture Review and how important is it?

The Nuclear Posture Review is a document required by the U.S. Congress, where the Secretary of Defense sends to Congress the administration’s overall view of nuclear weapons—the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. national security policy, what they want to communicate to allies that we try to reassure with these weapons, and how they communicate to potential adversaries of the United States what the deterrent strategy of the United States is.

From that document then come instructions which the military uses to actually design the targeting options for nuclear weapons and the planning of the U.S. nuclear force posture. The posture review also in a sense sets out the requirements for nuclear weapons, which then has implications in the budgets of the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and has implications for the size of the infrastructure necessary to produce and maintain U.S. nuclear weapons.

So it’s your kind of your basic operating system for nuclear weapons.


What are the key elements of the new report?

The new posture review departs from the one that the Bush administration did early in its term in several ways. One, the Obama one says that the primary objective or concern of U.S. nuclear posture is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other states and to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists. This is interesting because past administrations have said these are very important things, but it’s not part of our nuclear policy and our nuclear posture.

The administration also says very clearly that the goal of the United States is ultimately to have a world without nuclear weapons and acknowledges we’re far from that possibility today, but that it is an objective and therefore that the United States will try to lead the world in reducing the role of nuclear weapons in everyone’s national security policy.

So, the United States would try to lead by example and, as much as possible, to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. security, but also to then encourage and put pressure on others to do the same.

So those are two kind of interesting changes in priority, in a sense, of this posture.


How significantly did President Obama alter U.S. nuclear strategy?

Actually, the Bush administration got an unfair criticism. People around the world didn’t like the administration for a lot of reasons, and they basically interpreted the Bush administration’s strategy as somehow increasing the reliance by the United States on nuclear weapons and lowering the threshold that would decide whether the United States would use nuclear weapons. Neither of those was true.

The Bush administration also sought to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and I would argue that the Obama posture review extends what was already a process begun by the Bush administration and it extends it in ways reflecting the realities of the world.

The United States has greater conventional, non-nuclear military capabilities. It’s fought a couple of wars since the last posture review in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are major wars, cost more than a trillion dollars, and it’s obvious to everyone that we would never use nuclear weapons in these situations. They’re irrelevant, basically, and we have lots of other needs that need to be concentrated upon and fulfilled.

And so, this posture review reflects what the military understands, which is that it’s almost impossible to imagine a circumstance—other than a nuclear attack by a major state against the United States—where the United States would threaten to use nuclear weapons and so we ought to have a policy that reflects that reality.


Does the new policy limit America’s nuclear deterrent?

If you ask, how would the United States interpret it if a competitor makes declarations about its nuclear posture. Let’s say Russia for example. If the Russians came out and said, “Americans trust us, we won’t use nuclear weapons against you.”

Do you think the U.S. government, Congress, and the military are just going to take that at face value and say well the Russians said they won’t use nuclear weapons against us therefore let’s forget about the thousands of nuclear weapons that they have. No. You want to look at what their capabilities are, you want to look at scenarios—you want to be real.

Similarly, what the United States actually says in terms of whether or not it’s beating its chest and saying to the world out there, don’t you dare doing anything to us or we will nuke you. That they would take that seriously and as gospel is strange credulity. But similarly if we said to our potential adversaries, don't worry we’re past nuclear weapons. We still have a couple thousand of them, but don’t worry we’re nice guys. They won’t believe that either.

What they are looking at is what capabilities you have, the scenarios they can imagine of conflict, and the basic reality that if the United States was threatened in a fundamental way, it’s existence was threatened, an extreme threat or one of its allies like Japan was threatened that way, the other guy knows that if we have nuclear weapons and that’s the only thing we can use to defeat the other guy, that’s what we’re going to do.

So it doesn't matter so much what we say about it, it’s that capability and that context that will determine whether a state is deterred or not.


How does the NPR relate to Obama’s goal of moving toward a world without nuclear weapons?

This posture review states in many places that the goal of the United States is to move toward a world without nuclear weapons. It’s not unilateral, the United States is not going to get rid of its nuclear weapons alone. And it states clearly that as long as others have weapons, the United States will have to retain them and we will have to retain them in a safe and reliable manner.

But it does commit to this goal. It says if others want to work with us, we’re prepared to go there. It very specifically, for example, invites Russia and China—the two main potential competitors of the United States in a nuclear sphere—to further strategic dialogue, to further develop common understanding, so we can avoid any offensive nuclear competition, but actually move to reduce the role of these weapons in each of our cases. And to make sure that we have stable relations so that we don’t get into a crisis that could lead to a nuclear war or the threat of a nuclear war.

So that’s very important in the posture, that invitation to Russia and China to reduce the role of nuclear weapons.


Why is the strategy controversial?

I don’t think this is going to be controversial. There may be people on the far right who don’t like it, but in many cases they don’t understand reality, whether it was under the Bush administration or any previous administration. If you don’t understand the reality that, since 1945, we haven’t used nuclear weapons, no one has used nuclear weapons in anger, that every president has understood that this is a taboo that they don’t want to cross and that we don't make nuclear threats idly. You have to understand that and many people don’t.

You also have to understand that U.S. military doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons, doesn't feel that it would need to use nuclear weapons, and that we have enough conventional military capabilities to deter any rational actor from threatening us. The statements in this posture review don't really change all of that. There is some reassurance to adversaries, but it’s not the United States unilaterally giving up military power.

On the left, it will be criticized because they will argue that the President doesn’t go far enough to say that the only purpose for nuclear weapons is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others.

So the posture review says, look we want to move to that point of saying the only way in which we would consider using nuclear weapons is to retaliate to a nuclear attack. But states may develop biological weapon capabilities in the future and so we may then face a massive threat that is non-nuclear and so we would reserve this option. And more importantly today, we have some allies that we care greatly about, including South Korea, who worry that they face an adversary, in this case North Korea, that could threaten them with massive artillery attacks because the distance between Seoul and North Korea is very slight.

And our ally South Korea might want us to still threaten North Korea with a nuclear response even though North Korea would be attacking South Korea conventionally. The U.S. military knows that we can defeat North Korea without nuclear weapons, but in order to reassure our ally South Korea we’re not saying quite that way. We’re leaving the options fuzzier because this is reassuring to our ally South Korea.


Are disarmament advocates going to be disappointed by the NPR?

Some of the disarmament advocates around the world might be disappointed because people wanted President Obama to have a posture and declare that the only purpose is deter the use of nuclear weapons by others.

It’s very important to realize that this is the best posture review that the president and his administration thought could get the 67 votes in the U.S. Senate needed to ratify the START treaty.

On the one hand, you could have a posture review which says lovely things opposed to nuclear weapons that the disarmament community would applaud, but would in turn reduce the chances you could actually get a real treaty to reduce nuclear weapons ratified in the Senate.

So the administration decided to have a posture review that is conceived in terms of what we need to do to get votes in the Senate to actually implement reductions that can lead toward the future that disarmament advocates might want, even if our language now may disappoint them.


How does the NPR set the stage for the new START agreement, Global Nuclear Security Summit, and Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference?

The NPR is very important—it’s a document that will guide U.S. policy for the next five years. The new START treaty which will be signed in Prague on April 8 and hopefully ratified this year was already informed by the Nuclear Posture Review.

When the nuclear posture review was being drafted, the negotiators of the START treaty and the Pentagon and the military got together and said, here’s the basic parameters of what we’re going to talk about in START, in the Nuclear Posture Review that you are doing do you have any problem with us reducing to these levels. And the answer was no, we can maintain deterrence, the security of the United States is ensured at the levels that we are talking about with START. So in a way the posture review came before the START treaty even though it’s being announced only two days before the signing of the treaty.

Politically what all this means is that the President’s agenda that he announced a year ago in Prague of reducing the role of nuclear weapons now has the posture review which does that, the START treaty coming several days later which demonstrates it, the nuclear security summit in Washington on April 12-13 with the heads of more than 40 countries showing a commitment to try to keep nuclear material from terrorists (that’s the focus of the nuclear security summit).

All of which is meant to give momentum and show the seriousness of the United States as the review conference happens in May in New York with all the states in the nonproliferation treaty. So the United States is trying to say look, let’s keep the bargain where all of the rest of the world agrees not to get nuclear weapons and to work with us to keep nuclear weapons from terrorists and other states, because we are keeping our side of the bargain. We are doing everything we can to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and reduce the number of nuclear weapons.

We’re demonstrating that in April, you respond in kind in May.


Does the new strategy influence how the U.S. can contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

The NPR is not directed against Iran in any way. If you ask the U.S. military, we don’t need nuclear weapons to fight or deter Iran from committing the kind of aggression that militaries prevent. And even if Iran had a handful of nuclear weapons, the United States for the next decade at least is going to have thousands of strategic nuclear weapons as well as hundreds of shorter range nuclear weapons.

There is no nuclear equation with Iran and the U.S. military knows that even if people in the public or Congress say we may need to nuke Iran. That is not the way the military thinks about it.

What the posture review can help do though is encourage other countries to work with us to isolate Iran diplomatically, politically, and economically. With an understanding the United States is trying to be progressive or constructive in the way the rest of the world thinks about nuclear weapons.

And therefore we strengthen our persuasiveness in getting the rest of the world to be constructive with us as we deal with the kind of threats that Iran poses.