Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Bomb: A New History (first of three reactions)

Reading Stephen M. Younger’s The Bomb: A New History over the weekend, I had three strong reactions, the first of which I summarize below. This is an interesting and important book and my students can expect to read (at least) chapters 4 and 8 this fall.

I found the argument thin for his conclusion that a “moderate” future U.S. nuclear weapons policy would include new nuclear weapons designs and probably new military capabilities for nuclear weapons to improve the American capacity to hold deeply buried targets at risk.

My principal objection is a modified version of the standard “dangling antecedent” objection to arguments about deterrent sufficiency.

Despite leaving me desperate for references throughout the text (owing to security considerations), Dr. Younger provides an unusually clear definition of U.S. deterrent sufficiency on page 216 as a force sufficient:

“to make it impossible for Moscow to eliminate our weapons and avoid devastating retaliation following a first strike.”

While he doesn’t treat with any detail how precisely this capability instrumentalizes fear to drive desired Russian behavior, this articulation is sound if we grant familiar assumptions often packaged as “rationality.” However, I find his appropriation of the time-proven budgeting technique of rounding up and doubling the required number of nuclear weapons (for potential system failures, refurbishment process, and – a little ominously – “special weapons for unique applications”) suggestive that he does not share my perspective that each nuclear weapon in the arsenal creates a marginal security risk and complicates negotiations on both disarmament and nonproliferation (that I argue offer security benefits).

My concern about a potential disconnect between ends and means in Dr. Younger’s argument becomes more problematic as he pivots to support his actual conclusion that we need new nuclear weapon designs for flexibility and reliability.

On flexibility, he argues that the absence of additional, lower-yield weapon designs – which he associates with the work of anti-nuclear groups (huge and maybe even excessive props to a very few smart and dedicated people) – force the United States

“to continue a policy of mutual assured destruction."
I see three problems here.

First, the mutuality of assured destruction is not a matter of U.S. policy; it is a condition imposed on the United States by others (principally Russia) and can only be relieved –if at all – in cooperation with them.

Second, our efforts to relieve ourselves of excessively large-yield nuclear weapons by designing and building smaller-yield nuclear weapons may be misinterpreted. Such misinterpretations could undermine international confidence in the already stressed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, and so, whatever we do in the service of global nuclear stability should be agreed to be in alignment with the NPT regime.

Finally, he far too easily dismisses the concern that lower-yield nuclear weapons would be destabilizing if misinterpreted by other governments as more usable, possibly lowering the perceived threshold of nuclear weapons use. On page 127 he asserts

“I believe that these arguments are seriously flawed and fail to appreciate the essential elements of strategic deterrence.”
Here the apparent necessity of offering 220 pages without a single footnote becomes a vice as I do not share his confidence in the absolute logical rigor of all the political processes that the United States hopes to frighten and/or reassure through our maintenance of a nuclear arsenal. Moreover, there is a notable disagreement about whether nuclear deterrence is absolute or delicate (expertly summarized by Dr. Jeffrey Lewis). Dr. Younger’s uniquely informed perspective on this topic would be very welcome. Without it, I remain unconvinced that additional flexibility in nuclear weapons capability is necessary for deterrent sufficiency.

On reliability, I find Dr. Younger’s argument more formidable. He argues that existing redundancy is eroding with underinvestment in U.S. nuclear weapons manufacturing capability and unavoidable drift away from the methods and materials of decades past (page 192).

His explicit openness to international inspection of a prospective future nuclear weapons replacement capability (page 219) may suggest a confidence-building step around which agreement could be built among key states. However, even the best technical ideas require political and diplomatic spadework to avoid potentially destabilizing misinterpretation. Furthermore, I am convinced that such negotiations are more likely to succeed when the United States is prepared to listen to our international partners and perhaps even adjust our plans to align with their perceived needs, when appropriate.

Dr. Younger’s thoughtful observation that

“improved transparency and inspection treaties with other countries would reduce the need to maintain nuclear forces larger than required and could conceivably enable us to eliminate them altogether”
(page 220) suggests a narrow point in the gulf between the technical and multilateral diplomatic communities focused on nonproliferation that might be bridged with the right sort of meetings and consultations. However, we are not starting from a blank slate but a position of deep suspicion and dissatisfaction among many non-nuclear weapons states parties to the NPT. I hesitate in criticizing Dr. Younger for focusing his important arguments on the future of nuclear weapons exclusively on Americans, but find I must do so remaining convinced that the bomb is everybody’s problem.

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