"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
Toward a New Nuclear Posture: Challenges for the Bush Administration
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Robert Kerrey and William D. Hartung

After almost a decade of gridlock on U.S. strategic policy, President George W. Bush's mid-February decision to undertake an immediate review of the U.S. arsenal with an eye toward making deep cuts in nuclear weapons was a welcome step in the right direction. More than five decades into the atomic age, a radical downsizing of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is long overdue.

But overhauling the U.S. nuclear posture presents considerable challenges. To ensure that the current review does not simply end up ratifying a "Cold War lite" nuclear stance, as occurred when the Clinton administration undertook a similar review, Bush and his top national security advisers need to take charge of the review process by setting clear goals and challenging the shopworn, status quo assumptions of the nuclear bureaucracies at the Pentagon and the Department of Energy. Strong presidential leadership is a basic precondition for achieving substantial reductions in U.S. nuclear forces.

Furthermore, if President Bush is serious about his pledge to "discard Cold War relics and reduce our own nuclear forces to reflect today's needs," it will also be essential to incorporate the views of members of Congress, non-governmental analysts, and experts who have been involved in the development of U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear policy in past administrations. Without a well-informed national debate about what purpose, if any, nuclear weapons should serve in a revised U.S. national security strategy, the political consensus needed to support real changes in U.S. policy will not be achieved.

Perhaps the most basic challenge of all for the Bush administration will be deciding whether it wants to take a unilateralist approach to U.S. nuclear policy that relies on an ambitious missile defense program and the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, or a more cooperative stance in which the United States takes the lead in promoting reductions in global nuclear stockpiles by updating and expanding upon existing arms control agreements. As part of the posture review, the Bush administration will have to think hard about the value of pursuing a complex, costly, and unproven missile program that could become an obstacle to U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions and a catalyst for a major buildup of Chinese nuclear forces.


A Decade of Delay

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the risk of a nuclear attack is still the single greatest threat to our national survival. Yet since 1993, when President George Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed START II, further reductions in Washington's and Moscow's arsenals of nuclear overkill have been held hostage to political posturing, bureaucratic inertia, and short-term thinking.

On the U.S. side of the nuclear divide, both major political parties bear a share of the responsibility for what is now nearly a decade of missed opportunities for nuclear arms reductions. The Clinton administration was far too timid in its own reassessment of U.S. nuclear deterrence needs, and its "go slow" approach to nuclear reductions was exacerbated by the actions of Republicans on Capitol Hill, who joined together with a number of their Democratic colleagues to pass annual legislation that prevents the president from reducing U.S. strategic forces below START I levels of 6,000 warheads or from taking U.S. forces off high-alert status.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, harsh political battles between President Boris Yeltsin and opposition parties in the Duma repeatedly delayed Russian ratification of START II, which would reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads to 3,000-3,500. It was not until Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president that the arms control logjam in Moscow was pried loose. In March 2000, the Duma ratified both START II and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) just in time for the review conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The presentations at that conference served as a good illustration of the nuclear inertia that plagued the 1990s, especially on the U.S. side. While Russian representatives came to the NPT review conference with two freshly ratified arms control treaties in hand, the senior U.S. representative to the conference, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, had nothing to show in the way of new U.S. commitments to nuclear reductions since the previous review meeting in 1995. To make matters even worse, the negative international repercussions of the U.S. Senate's October 1999 vote against ratification of the CTBT still lingered.

In an effort to put the best possible face on this embarrassing situation, the State Department put up an impressive exhibit at UN headquarters in New York detailing the thousands of nuclear weapons that the United States had withdrawn from service and dismantled during the 1990s. But the well-crafted presentation left out one important point: all of the reductions implemented during the Clinton administration were carried out pursuant to arms reduction agreements that had been negotiated prior to its tenure, during the Reagan and Bush administrations. On the critical issue of achieving further reductions in the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles, the Clinton administration had basically been treading water.

An important reason for the "decade of delay" in nuclear arms reductions was the Clinton administration's mishandling of the 1994 nuclear posture review. According to analyst Janne Nolan, what started out as a fundamental review of the U.S. nuclear posture in the first year of the new administration degenerated under the weight of "bureaucratic inertia and a lack of presidential leadership" into an extremely cautious set of recommendations suggesting "no significant changes in the nuclear posture of Clinton's predecessors."1

Clinton's first secretary of defense, Les Aspin, and the assistant secretary in charge of overseeing the review, Ashton Carter, initially conceived of it as an effort to seek a wide range of options for restructuring U.S. nuclear forces, including the possibility of making major changes, such as the complete elimination of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. When push came to shove, however, these new ideas were forcefully opposed by mid-level Pentagon officials, and Carter was not given sufficient support from senior levels of the administration—up to and including the president—to overcome this intense bureaucratic resistance.2

By contrast, when George Bush's administration conducted a similar review, the president, then-Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell were all closely involved in the process. That high-level focus allowed for significant changes in the size of the U.S. nuclear target list. As a result of its lack of firm leadership from the top, the Clinton administration missed an historic opportunity to promote deep cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and to parlay those cuts into political leverage over other nuclear-armed nations and aspiring nuclear powers.

This is not to suggest that the Clinton record on nuclear arms control was without accomplishment. Vice President Al Gore did important work in helping to broker the denuclearization of the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and the administration's consistent support for cooperative threat reduction programs provided important resources for the destruction of Soviet delivery vehicles and the control of bomb-grade fissile materials. Through the Agreed Framework, the administration was able to stop Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and in subsequent negotiations it made significant progress toward an agreement to cap North Korea's ballistic missile programs. But much more could have been accomplished if the president and his top advisers had made nuclear arms reductions a political priority.


A Fresh Perspective

On May 23, 2000, in the face of ongoing questions about whether he had sufficient foreign policy expertise to serve as president, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush made an appearance at the National Press Club to present his vision of a new U.S. nuclear policy. In an attempt to add gravitas to the proceedings, Bush was joined by a group of distinguished Republican foreign policy experts, but the event proved to be more than just another campaign photo opportunity. Bush used the speech to challenge the existing orthodoxy on U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

While a significant portion of the speech was devoted to reiterating Bush's controversial proposal for the deployment of an extensive national missile defense system, the most forward-looking elements of his statement were his endorsement of reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles to "the lowest possible number consistent with our national security" and his call for removing "as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status." In direct contradiction to the stance adopted by his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill, who had been obstructing efforts to reduce deployed U.S. forces below START I levels of 6,000 warheads, Bush suggested that "it should be possible to reduce the number of American nuclear weapons significantly further than has already been agreed to under START II without compromising our security in any way." Early on in the speech, Bush struck a conciliatory tone toward Moscow, observing that since "Russia is no longer our enemy…[o]ur mutual security need no longer depend on a nuclear balance of terror." In perhaps the most memorable phrase of the speech, Bush argued that unnecessary weapons based on outmoded targeting scenarios are nothing more than "the expensive relics of dead conflicts."

His decision shortly after taking office to order a serious review of the U.S. nuclear posture suggests that Bush's speech was more than just an exercise in campaign rhetoric designed to demonstrate that he was "up to the job" of serving as commander-in-chief. The question is whether the elements of the president's nuclear policy can be fashioned into a coherent, constructive whole. As currently envisioned, the Bush policy has a fundamental contradiction: his administration's enthusiastic embrace of missile defenses, combined with its denigration of long-standing arms control arrangements, could spark a new arms race that would undercut the rationale for his commitment to constructive measures such as deep cuts and de-alerting.

It remains to be seen whether President Bush can find a way to harmonize the contradictory strands in his emerging nuclear doctrine. His choice of long-time missile defense advocate Donald Rumsfeld as his secretary of defense indicates a strong commitment to this element of his proposed nuclear policy. Since taking office, Rumsfeld has attempted to create an air of inevitability about U.S. deployment of long-range missile defenses by suggesting that the issue is no longer whether the United States will deploy such a system but when. He has alternated between harsh anti-arms control rhetoric—such as his comment during his confirmation hearings that the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is "ancient history"—and more conciliatory statements, such as his reference in those same hearings to the need to "refashion the balance between defenses and deterrence."

If Rumsfeld truly seeks a balance, rather than pursuing missile defenses regardless of the economic, diplomatic, and security costs, then the Bush agenda of security-enhancing nuclear reductions may be achievable. But a unilateral decision to deploy missile defenses regardless of the concerns expressed by Russian officials would almost inevitably provoke Moscow to modernize its nuclear missile forces and keep a significant proportion of them on high-alert status. Furthermore, a National Intelligence Estimate assessing the potential security impact of U.S. deployment of a missile defense system conducted last year reportedly indicated that an abrupt U.S. decision to deploy missile defenses would probably spark an increase in the nuclear and missile forces of China, Pakistan, and India.3

Under this turbulent scenario of nuclear arms buildups and the hawkish domestic political climate that would likely follow, it is hard to see how a policy of deep reductions in U.S. nuclear forces would be sustainable. And even if the Bush administration could make some cuts in our own arsenal in the face of Russian and Chinese nuclear expansion, the net result would hardly be a safer world. Pursuing missile defenses as a fallback against rearmament in an environment of deep cuts or elimination of current arsenals would be one thing, but pursuing them without serious regard for the likely response of other nuclear powers can only serve as an obstacle to what should be the overriding goal of U.S. policy: to safely eliminate as many nuclear weapons as possible, not only in the United States, but in all states with nuclear weapons.

Despite these contradictions, Bush seems serious about pursuing deep nuclear reductions, but there is a danger that the administration may pursue changes to the nuclear arsenal that are destabilizing and dangerous, rather than security enhancing. The administration's nuclear review will reportedly lean heavily on the findings of a January 2001 report by the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP).4 The NIPP report was directed by Keith Payne, who was the co-author of an infamous 1980 essay on U.S. nuclear policy that ran in Foreign Policy magazine under the ominous title "Victory Is Possible." Among the participants in the study panel were Stephen Hadley and Robert Joseph, both of whom are now responsible for nuclear policy issues at the National Security Council.

The NIPP report sheds important light on the "unilateralist" strain in the thinking of key Bush advisers. The report's basic thrust is in an era of strategic uncertainty, when the United States is not even sure who its adversaries may be, it needs the flexibility to reduce or reconstitute its nuclear forces as circumstances require, ideally without the limits imposed by negotiated arms control agreements. Part of this new "flexibility," the report suggests, includes developing "future deterrent and wartime roles" for U.S. nuclear weapons that would include the following: using U.S. nuclear weapons to deter other nations from undertaking an attack on the United States using chemical or biological weapons; employing U.S. nuclear weapons to limit U.S. casualties in a major conventional conflict; and using U.S. nuclear weapons for "special targeting requirements," such as attacking hardened underground military and command facilities.5

If the thinking reflected in the NIPP report were to become the basis for the Bush nuclear policy, the security benefits derived from reducing U.S. nuclear forces could be canceled out by the new dangers inherent in a policy which legitimizes the use or even the threat of use of nuclear weapons in certain regional conflict scenarios. This would be a disastrous doctrine. It would likely spur nuclear proliferation and it would contradict the U.S. commitment under Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to take concrete steps toward eliminating its nuclear arsenal, a commitment that was reaffirmed at the 2000 NPT review conference.

Thankfully, it appears that the Bush administration is not of one mind on the issue of making "usable," low-yield nuclear weapons the centerpiece of a new U.S. nuclear doctrine. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, decided against using or threatening to use nuclear weapons in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In his best-selling memoir, Powell traces his own reservations about the wisdom of using nuclear weapons in a wartime role to a discussion he had during a 1986 war-gaming exercise that involved using battlefield nuclear weapons to blunt a Soviet conventional attack on West Germany: "No matter how small these nuclear payloads were, we would be crossing a threshold. Using nukes at this point would mark one of the most significant political and military decisions since Hiroshima…. At that point, I began rethinking the practicality of these small nuclear weapons."6

Hopefully, Powell's practical views on issues ranging from the CTBT, which he has supported in the past, to the need to continue the dialogue with North Korea about capping its ballistic missile programs, which has been put on hold by the president despite Powell's advice to the contrary, will ultimately prevail within the Bush administration. If the nuclear unilateralists prevail, President Bush's pledge to cut U.S. nuclear arsenals and reduce global nuclear dangers may never come to fruition.


Outlines of a New Policy

The most important contributing factor to the success of the Bush administration's proposal to reduce nuclear dangers will be its diplomatic approach. The president will have to demonstrate that the United States is serious about using its current position of unparalleled strength to exert genuine international leadership. The United States must be perceived as willing to use its unprecedented power for the common good of the international community, not just for its own self-interest, narrowly defined. The provocative, unilateralist tone that has colored recent remarks by Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, is liable to provoke a political and military backlash from allies and adversaries alike. The more moderate, cooperative stance struck by Powell is far more likely to yield positive results in reducing global nuclear dangers. The question is, which approach will President Bush adopt?

The key area in which the issue of unilateralism versus cooperative leadership will come into play is the question of national missile defense (NMD). If the goal of NMD is to reduce the threat of a ballistic missile attack on the United States, it makes eminent sense to vigorously pursue diplomatic preventive measures now, before nations of concern have developed the capability to reach U.S. soil with a nuclear-armed ballistic missile. If President Bush wants to supplement his program of nuclear reductions by developing a national missile defense system, he must do so in a realistic fashion that takes into account the limits of existing technologies, the costs of the proposed system, and the impacts on arms control and the behavior of potential adversaries.

Most experts agree that it will take at least five to 10 years to develop even a modest capability to knock down a handful of incoming warheads. In the time it will take to see if such a system is worth deploying, we can and should be making great strides toward reducing the nuclear threat using all the other tools we have at our disposal—diplomatic, legal, and economic. If we do our work well, in five years time the need to construct a missile defense system to overcome the nascent threats from North Korea, Iran, or Iraq may be rendered moot by changes in the local, regional, and international political landscapes. Whatever difficulties or obstacles may arise, it would be irresponsible not to pursue all reasonable channels for stemming the proliferation of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in tandem with any missile defense development effort.

Reducing nuclear weapons will also require enlightened leadership on the domestic front. As an integral part of the nuclear posture review, President Bush should immediately direct the secretary of defense to brief every member of Congress on the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), the Pentagon's top secret nuclear target list. Unless members of Congress understand the enormity of our current arsenal and the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons at a gut level, they will not understand the urgent need for action, nor will they be willing to provide the resources required for safe reductions of global arsenals. When the principal author of this article served as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he repeatedly sought a briefing from the Pentagon on the SIOP but was never granted one. As of this writing, it is not clear whether any current member of Congress has had such a briefing. At a minimum, members of the intelligence, armed services, and defense appropriations committees of the House and Senate should receive such a briefing as a first step toward piercing the veil of secrecy and bureaucratic privilege that has contributed to keeping the U.S. nuclear arsenal at dangerously high levels.

As a major step toward reducing and eventually eliminating our own nuclear arsenal (as we have committed to doing under the NPT), the Bush review should consider moving toward a minimum deterrent posture involving hundreds, not thousands, of nuclear warheads. Just one of our Trident submarines can launch up to 192 independently targetable warheads, each with a yield approximately 30 times as powerful as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Two or three of these submarines should provide more than enough destructive power to deter any nation from contemplating a nuclear attack on the United States, its allies, or its forces. A minimum deterrent posture would also entail changing the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons so that U.S. nuclear weapons would only be used to deter or retaliate against the use of nuclear weapons against U.S. territory or allies. U.S. conventional forces are sufficiently powerful and resilient to provide a deterrent or retaliatory capability against a state wielding chemical or biological weapons and perhaps even against a nation with a small nuclear arsenal.7

As for the question of reducing U.S. forces unilaterally, President Bush should consider the approach taken during his father's administration, in which reciprocal unilateral steps by Washington and Moscow were utilized as a way to speed the process of nuclear reductions, not as an alternative to arms control agreements. The firestorm of criticism from allies and potential adversaries alike over the Bush administration's suggestion that it might break out of the ABM Treaty gives a preliminary indication of how dangerous and unpredictable a world without nuclear arms control arrangements could be. Provoking an environment of nuclear anarchy is not in the interests of the United States or any other nation. As the world's pre-eminent military power, the United States actually has more to lose under an "every nation for itself" approach to nuclear weapons development and deployment than virtually any other state.

Along with any reductions it pursues in the U.S. arsenal, the Bush administration should also ease Russian nuclear cuts through a major expansion of the Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program, which has been providing several billion dollars per year to assist Russia in dismantling nuclear weapons and safely disposing of bomb-grade fissile materials. President Bush expressed support for the Nunn-Lugar concept during the campaign. It is now time to back up that commitment. Hopefully, the recent revelations regarding a review of U.S.-Russian programs in this area represent a good faith effort to fine tune the Nunn-Lugar program in ways that make it more effective, not the beginning of an attempt to reduce resources devoted to these activities, which have contributed to the deactivation of more than 5,200 Russian nuclear warheads and 400 long-range missiles.

Unfortunately, reports emerged at the end of March that the White House Budget Office is contemplating steep cuts in key cooperative threat reduction initiatives, including a sharp decrease in the program designed to help Moscow control and account for its bomb-grade nuclear materials. If implemented, these cuts would directly contradict the recommendations of a recent bipartisan panel co-chaired by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN), which recommended a $30 billion increase in Nunn-Lugar-style programs over the next decade to head off a situation in which Russia could become "a virtual 'Home Depot' for would-be proliferators."

Finally, as part of the nuclear posture review, the president should move swiftly to implement his campaign pledge to take as many U.S. nuclear weapons as possible off high-alert status. As long as the United States and Russia maintain such large nuclear arsenals, the prospect of an accidental launch is real, as we learned a few years back when President Yeltsin reportedly came close to ordering an attack on the United States after Russian radars mistook a Norwegian satellite launch for a U.S. missile attack. General Lee Butler, the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, has spoken of the "mind-numbing compression of decision-making under threat of a nuclear attack," in which the decision to launch a nuclear-armed missile must be made within a matter of minutes. It is in no one's interest—not in Washington, not in Moscow, not in Beijing, not anywhere—for the decisions on whether to use these devastating weapons to continue to be made on such short notice.

We should seize the occasion of the nuclear posture review to reinforce the most positive elements of President Bush's proposal: his calls for immediate, substantial reductions in the U.S. arsenal and de-alerting of as many U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons as possible. But to accomplish this worthwhile goal and break the nuclear gridlock that has paralyzed nuclear reduction efforts for nearly a decade, the president will need to curb the unilateralist impulses of a number of his key advisers and build upon this nation's bipartisan record of arms control and arms reduction initiatives.

In doing so, President Bush will have ample precedent in the record of Ronald Reagan, who began his time in office pursuing an across-the-board modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and an expansive missile defense shield but ended up putting missile defense on the back burner and agreeing to the elimination of theater nuclear forces in Europe and, in principle, to substantial reductions in long-range Soviet and U.S. nuclear forces. We can only hope that President Bush will be as creative in adapting to the circumstances and opportunities of our era as President Reagan was in the 1980s. If so, his vision of a safer world with far fewer nuclear weapons can and will be realized.



1. Janne E. Nolan, "Preparing for the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review," Arms Control Today, November 2000, p. 13.

2. For a thorough analysis of the 1993-1994 nuclear posture review, see Janne E. Nolan, An Elusive Consensus: Nuclear Weapons and American Security after the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999), p. 35-62.

3. See, for example, Bob Drogin and Tyler Marshall, "Missile Shield Analysis Warns of Arms Buildup," The Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2000, p. A1.

4. Steven Lee Myers, "Bush Takes First Step to Shrink Arsenal of Nuclear Warheads," The New York Times, February 9, 2001, p. A1.

5. National Institute for Public Policy, Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control, Volume I, Executive Report, January 2001.

6. Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), p. 313.

7. For more on this latter point, see the interview with General Lee Butler in Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now (New York: Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 1998), p. 203-205.


Robert Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, is president of New School University. William D. Hartung is president's fellow and director of the Arms Trade Resource Center at New School University's World Policy Institute.