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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 11, 2010

Obama's nuclear policy hit the mark

By Ralph Cossa

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, on Thursday signed the "New START" nuclear arms reduction treaty at Prague Castle.

Associated Press

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The Obama administration's just-released 2010 Nuclear Posture Review has been criticized by the left as not going far enough toward achieving the president's stated goal of creating a nuclear weapons-free world. Meanwhile, the right has accused the Pentagon of putting our nation's security at risk.

In short, it appears the administration has gotten it just about right by charting a middle course that pleases neither extreme. What the so-called NPR does do is clearly reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy while still keeping our deterrence capabilities intact as long as such weapons continue to exist.

The 2010 NPR lists "preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism" as the first of its five key objectives, based on the understanding that nuclear terrorism is "today's most immediate and extreme danger." This raises the importance of countering nuclear proliferation, in part by preventing North Korea and Iran from further developing, or exporting, their nuclear weapons programs.

"Reducing the role of nuclear weapons" was listed as the second key objective. It was here that the disarmament community's hopes were the highest (and its disappointment most loudly expressed). Many were hoping for a "no first use" declaration; a clear statement that nuclear weapons would only be used in response to a nuclear attack by others. Instead, the NPR promised only to reduce the role of nuclear weapons "with the objective of making deterrence ... the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons."

To this end, the NPR pledges that the U.S. "will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations." Note the important caveat here: these assurances specifically do not apply to Tehran or Pyongyang unless they come into full compliance with the NPT.

The other three objectives further define force levels and composition. They call for maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels, strengthening regional deterrence and reassurance of U.S. allies and partners, and sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal, while pledging not to develop new warheads or new nuclear capabilities.

Most significant is a pledge not to conduct nuclear tests and to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, although one wonders when the administration will feel prepared to take on this task, especially when confronted first and foremost with getting the new U.S.-Russia START arms control agreement ratified.

The NPR also calls for a more stable and transparent strategic relationship with Beijing. While China was a "contingency" in the last NPR, here its primary role is as a partner with whom Washington wants to work to promote future stability. Beijing does not get a total free pass, however. The NPR, early on, notes that the U.S. and China's Asian neighbors remain concerned about Beijing's military modernization efforts, "including its qualitative and quantitative modernization of its nuclear force."

Again dashing some hopes, the NPR states that forward-deployed nuclear weapons will remain in Europe and that U.S. extended deterrence in Asia will remain "credible and effective." The bottom line: "As long as regional nuclear threats to our forces, allies and partners remain, deterrence will require a nuclear component."

This is well understood and applauded by security specialists and alliance managers in Seoul and Tokyo. General publics, and in the case of Japan even some senior political leaders, are less persuaded. In Korea, public opinion seems to run in favor of developing an indigenous nuclear capability. In Japan, many seem to believe that the nuclear dimension of extended deterrence can and should be eliminated. This underscores the need for continued dialogue, not just with the powers that be, but with broader domestic audiences as well.

For our Asian allies, the NPR represents a reaffirmation of U.S. extended deterrence, including but not limited to its nuclear dimension, for as long as nuclear threats exist. While it de facto offers negative security assurances to Pyongyang if it chooses to come back into the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state, it is likely to have little effect positively or negatively on the Korean peninsula denuclearization effort. It remains to be seen if Beijing will step up to the plate and enter into the comprehensive nuclear dialogue being offered by the Obama administration, or if it will continue to sit on the sidelines and wait for still-deeper cuts in the U.S. and Russian inventories before joining the game.

The NPR ends with a reaffirmation that "the long-term goal of U.S. policy is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons." But it recognizes that this is a long journey and one that must be undertaken deliberately and carefully, given the nuclear dangers that still exist in the world.

Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.