The Key to the Nuclear Posture Review

It looks like President Obama has decided to make the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty the key to his new nuclear strategy, by pledging that the United States won't use nuclear weapons to respond to an attack by a country that adheres to the treaty. That would be a significant shift from the Cold War nuclear posture, and it would heavily tie the future of U.S. nuclear weapon strategy to global efforts against nuclear terrorism and non-proliferation--and would disentangle years of history and culture that link American nuclear weapons use to other countries--"state actors," in nuclear parlance.

The New York Times reported that President Obama, in an interview with the Times, said that the U.S. is "going to want to make sure that we can continue to move towards less emphasis on nuclear weapons" to "make sure that our conventional weapons capability is an effective deterrent in all but the most extreme circumstances."

The Times suggests that Obama is prepared to give countries that adhere to the NPT the benefit of the doubt even if they use chemical or biological weapons to attack the United States and its allies, including NPT-signers like China and Russia.

This policy would be subject to revision if other countries advanced their capabilities in such a way that would significantly increase the threat to the U.S. and its allies.

The hope is that by tying nuclear strategy to NPT compliance, the international communication will isolate regimes like North Korea and Iran that flout its rules and increase the incentives for non-nuclear countries to prevent terrorist groups from taking root in their countries.

States that pass nuclear weapons to a terrorist group are, for the first time, subject to the U.S. deterrent--because if they did so, they'd be non-compliant with its NPT obligations.

The NPR includes an effort to expand the president's "decision time" in the event of a nuclear crisis. The so-called "de-alerting debate" has been wrongly characterized, according to the administration, as the decision about whether to reduce the threat of "hair-trigger" nuclear weapons. The real concern is not that these weapons may be accidentally fired, but rather that the current framework only leaves the president 10 to 20 minutes to decide whether or not to respond to a nuclear attack by another state, even if it is a faulty warning. That is an unacceptably short period of time to decide the fate of the world, according to the new strategy.

The NPR has little to say about tactical nuclear weapons. That debate is being deferred to the NATO Strategic Concept due to be finalized later this year--there is a great sensitivity to avoid trumping a collective Alliance decision with unilateral U.S. gestures.

The NPR will, as previously reported, call for continued investment in "stockpile management." This is a term of art, and it will be subject to intense political scrutiny, given that Republicans want to preserve the option of building a new warhead, while the administration is committed to making sure the current stockpile is a credible deterrent. That might mean, for example, fewer but more efficient warheads.