The Obama administration has recently released its highly anticipated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). This document outlines the roles and missions for U.S. nuclear forces and the steps necessary to maintain associated infrastructure. The reactions of key nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states will help determine whether the NPR will succeed in advancing U.S. and international security, strengthening the nonproliferation regime, and laying the groundwork for a nuclear-weapons-free world.

Opening presentation and discussion

Samore: Written for Foreign Audiences

The keynote address was given by Gary Samore, White House Coordinator for the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism. He said that the NPR was written with foreign audiences in mind:

  • Unclassified: While previous Nuclear Posture Reviews had classified and unclassified versions, this NPR is entirely unclassified, said Samore. “We intended to influence the perceptions of different foreign audiences.”
  • Key Audiences: Samore listed two key foreign audiences:
    1. U.S. Allies: The administration had to balance two potentially competing messages: reassuring those that fall under the U.S. nuclear deterrent umbrella that their security remains a top priority for Washington with also signaling its commitment to disarmament.
    2. Members of the NPT: A second key audience was non-nuclear-weapons states who are members of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), particularly the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), which includes Egypt and Indonesia, and South Africa. NAM members have “complained that having joined the treaty, they should not feel threatened by any nuclear strikes.”
  • Russia: Samore said the NPR stresses the need for the United States to engage Russia on issues of concern. In particular, he said the United States needs to “take a broad approach that takes into account Russian concerns over conventional capabilities and missile defense.”
  • China:The NPR recognized that China is modernizing some aspects of its nuclear arsenal. The administration hopes to begin a strategic dialogue with China that emphasizes transparency concerning  both nations’ nuclear weapons and strategic capabilities.

Samore said the measures in the NPR “fit our [U.S.] security interests. We are not recommending other nuclear weapons states adopt a similar approach.”

Peer Competitors?: Nuclear Weapon State Perspectives

Russia: New START and Future Reductions

Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak said that while the two countries “do not see eye-to-eye on technical issues…strategically we are in the same boat.”

  • Shared Goals: Both the United States and Russia, he noted, agree that nonproliferation and preventing nuclear terrorism are the principal challenges nuclear policy needs to address.
  • Ratifying START: Russia is “willing to work together on further [arms control and disarmament] issues,” Kislyak said, but both sides need to first focus on securing ratification of the new START agreement.
  • Russian Concerns: Kislyak reiterated Russian concerns over ballistic missile defenses and precision conventional weapons, warning that “unchecked ballistic missile defenses could undermine” the strategic balance between the U.S. and Russia.
  • NATO: Future reductions, he said, “have to take into account other countries,” particularly NATO. “We face three nuclear weapons countries in NATO,” he pointed out, and Russia and NATO “are not yet in a relationship where we can…relax about the capabilities being developed along our borders.”

China: NPR is Encouraging in Some Ways, Discouraging in Others

Dr. Yao Yunzhu of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University said the NPR had “something encouraging and something disappointing” for China.

  • Terrorism: Yao was encouraged by the NPR’s shift in focus to the threats posed by nuclear proliferation and terrorism.
  • Biological Attacks: However, Yao criticized the NPR for reserving a role for nuclear weapons in deterring some biological attacks as well as for conventional, chemical, or biological attacks by countries not in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations.
  • Taiwan: China would like further clarity on what role nuclear weapons might play in an armed conflict over Taiwan, Yao said. Taiwan’s inclusion under the U.S. nuclear deterrent umbrella is “frequently cited in Chinese literature as evidence that the U.S. intends to use nuclear weapons against China.”
  • China and the Disarmament Process: Yao said China supports moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons, but it feels “less pressed to enter into the disarmament process. China has promised to enter into multilateral disarmament process once the two powers have reduced numbers to a certain amount, including nondeployed systems,” Yao said. However, while the United States and Russia have not yet reached that point, Chinese experts are engaging in “very serious discussions” to define what that point might be.

United Kingdom: Will Elections Affect Nuclear Policy?

Carnegie’s James Acton assessed London’s likely reaction to the NPR:

  • Warhead Maintenance: The UK government had an interest in the NPR because it cooperates closely with the United States on aspects of warhead development and maintenance and buys some non-nuclear components for warheads from the US. Acton said that London would be pleased with the warhead life extension approach described by the NPR as it should enable close UK-US cooperation to continue.
  • Declaratory Policy: Following the General Election, Acton predicted that the UK is likely to change its declaratory policy to mirror the new US policy.
  • Disarmament and Nonproliferation: Acton argued that, with the NPT Review Conference around the corner, the UK government would be pleased by the NPR’s emphasis on nonproliferation and disarmament.
  • The Liberal Democrat Party: The rise of the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) in the polls is significant, Acton said, because the LDP opposes current plans to replace U.K. Trident nuclear submarines with newer models.

Allaying Skeptics: Non-Nuclear Weapon State Perspectives

Brazil: NPR is a Step Forward

  • A Better NPR: Orlando Ribeiro of the Brazilian Embassy said that the NPR “is better than previous ones, although it still suggests the United States will rely on nuclear weapons to a significant degree for the near future.
  • Qualitative vs. Quantitative: Ribeiro said that a lack of significant progress on the part of nuclear weapons states “to effectively eliminate arsenals renders it to difficult for the international community to take measures to make the nonproliferation regime more stable.” He added that reductions in the number of nuclear weapons alone will “not lead to disarmament because qualitative arms races will continue.”

Australia: Non-nuclear Weapons States Not Monolithic

  • Differing Opinions: Peter Sawczak of the Australian Embassy noted that non-nuclear weapons states are not a monolithic category. “Many if not most of us are not skeptics with regard to the NPR.”
  • Relying on Extended Deterrence: While Australia “makes no secret of the fact that we rely on extended deterrence in upholding our alliance relationship, how the U.S. determines what it needs to maintain a credible deterrence is up to themit,” Sawczak said. If the United States wanted to go in the direction of sole purpose or no first use doctrine, he added, Australia would “be willing to discuss it with the U.S. and others to make sure our concerns are met.”

Assuring Allies: Extended Deterrence Implications

Carnegie’s George Perkovich began the discussion of the NPR’s implications for U.S. extended deterrence commitments by noting that as nuclear weapons have become a smaller fraction of overall U.S. military capabilities, “extended deterrence has become a political argument for retaining nuclear arms and infrastructure and a leading argument against disarmament.”

  • Japan: Ken Jimbo, an associate professor at Keio University in Tokyo, said that Japan received the negative security assurance in the NPR “positively,” particularly because the United States did not exclude a role for nuclear weapons in deterring chemical and biological attacks by states in noncompliance with their nonproliferation obligations, such as North Korea.
  • Balance with China: Jimbo added that the U.S.–China strategic relationship posed a difficult question for extended deterrence. “If in the future the United States seeks a mutual [nuclear] balance with China,” rather than outright superiority, some in Japan may be concerned over the strength of the U.S. commitment to Japan’s security, Jimbo noted.
  • Poland: Assessing reactions in Poland, Lukasz Kulesa of the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw anticipated that the “biggest problem” with the NPR may be critics who have not read the document and erroneously believe the United States is “on the slippery slope to disarmament…and may not have the guts to use nuclear weapons.”
  • Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe: Odd-Inge Kvalheim of the Embassy of Norway expressed hope that the NPR will bring a “kick off, if not a resolution” of the issue of so-called tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. The United States maintains several hundred nuclear weapons on its military bases in Europe that could be used by NATO forces in a conflict. Norway signed a letter, along with Germany and other European countries, calling for an Alliance-wide dialogue on the fate of these weapons. Kvalheim referred the main points of a recent joint initiative from Poland and Norway, which he said "illustrates that one should be able to work within NATO to take practical steps to reduce the role of tactical nuclear weapons."