Nuclear Madness Month at the White House

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Next week kicks off nuclear madness month at the White House -- or, as one senior administration official resignedly describes it, "all nukes, all the time." By mid-May, the world ought to know whether President Obama is really a deterrencer in a dove's clothing. And we'll know whether his efforts to convince China to support sanctions against Iran were successful.
Debates about nuclear strategy are tribal. There are three broad camps these days: doves tend to view nuclear weapons as per se dangerous and immoral; want to reduce their salience towards disarmament; emphasize reducing tensions and threatening behavior as way to enable peaceful solutions.
 
Hawks tend to view nuclear weapons within context of general view that U.S. supremacy and military superiority is essential. Major point these days is that nuclear weapons in the hands of others are unacceptable.  Sometimes emphasize use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. but actually often prefer conventional force because more useable.
 
Deterrencers (for lack of a better word) tend to view nuclear weapons as important or even essential elements of stability and peacekeeping; seek commonly acceptable strategic postures with nuclear forces, some more through appropriate force posture, others more through arms control.

The long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review, which will spell out quite clearly what President Obama really believes about the future of nuclear weapons.


It is just days away from public release. 

Two senior American officials, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Ellen Tauscher, are in Brussels this week briefing NATO allies on the specifics of the new START follow-on treaty with Russia as well as on the general outline of the NPR. 

Eastern European leaders, in particular, are anxious to hear what it has to say about deterrence and the nuclear umbrella. The White House is keeping mum on what the NPR says; hopefully NATO allies will dish to journalists in their countries.

Then the President travels to Prague, where he'll sign the treaty, meet with the Russians and with other leaders, and try to build more consensus for sanctions against Iran. (Russia is at least talking about the content of the sanctions, and China...well, China might not want to be the only outlier, as complicated as the Russia-China-energy-trade-power axis is.)

The next week, 40+ heads of state will gather in Washington, D.C. for a nuclear security summit. The main subjects: securing nuclear weapons, preventing nuclear terrorism and smuggling.

Then the Senate begins debate of the START follow-on treaty; whether enough Republicans in the Senate come on board depends a lot on whether the Nuclear Posture Review changes or preserves current policy, which gives the U.S. a wide degree of latitude about when and whether to use nuclear weapons.   

In early May, a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review summit begins, and the agenda items are quite technical -- but critical. There will also be basic questions asked: is the treaty working? What incentives can be added to encourage compliance? What penalties can be added to discourage noncompliance? 

So -- big picture -- Obama talks a good game and has an expansion vision. What will we learn about he's going to get it done?
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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