President Obama's nuclear posture review (NPR), which defines U.S. policy on nuclear weapons, is less revolutionary than you might think. The NPR is sparking wide debate for narrowing the conditions under which the U.S. would use its substantial nuclear arsenal. Obama's NPR firmly commits, as the New York Times puts it, "not to use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons or launched a crippling cyberattack." This has drawn news reports touting a reduced role for U.S. nukes and cries that we're practically inviting attack.
On the surface, Obama's plan certainly looks like a big deal. For decades, U.S. nuclear policy has been intentionally vague. Refusing to clearly spell out what would provoke an American nuclear retaliation, experts thought, makes the weapons more effective deterrents. Potential enemies would err on the side of not provoking total nuclear annihilation. Obama's plan, by spelling out the conditions of a U.S. nuclear strike, wants to reduce the circumstances in which nukes could be used and minimize the specter of nuclear warfare. But read the NPR carefully and you'll see a gaping loophole ensuring that our nuclear policy goes basically unchanged.