REMARKS: "An Assessment of the New Nuclear Posture Review," at the 2018 Nuclear Deterrence Summit

Keynote Address by Thomas Countryman
Chair of the Board of the Arms Control Association, and
former acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security

February 20, 2018
Nuclear Deterrence Summit, Arlington, VA
(Remarks as prepared for delivery.)


Thank you for the kind introduction.

I’m presenting my own views today, but also representing the Arms Control Association. I affiliated with the ACA because it stands for the priorities that motivated my State Department career: an effective national security policy that prioritizes reducing the risk of nuclear, chemical or biological conflict.

It’s not only appropriate today, but urgent to consider carefully the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released by the Administration February 2, and I will focus my comments on that. I would like to cover both the positive points, and to critique the major departures in policy—in both substance and tone—contained in new language and it what it chose to omit. Let me note that I have the greatest respect for the many dedicated officials—several of whom are former colleagues—who worked on the report. I have no doubt that we agree on the fundamental goals for nuclear policy—to enhance stability and deterrence and to ensure America’s allies are safe and secure. On this, we all agree, and nothing I say should be seen as disparaging them. Instead, my remarks are a contribution to an urgent debate that must be conducted in the Congress, the press and the public.

I need to say this because there has been a defensiveness on the part of some co-authors in response to critiques already offered, a gruff assertion that the NPR is more about the status quo than about change. I’ve seen old colleagues at State attempt to reinsert into the NPR policy statements that were—clearly—deliberately omitted from the document. Well, as James Acton has pointed out, it is a rule in Washington—more true in the past year —that continuation of old policies must be presented as major innovations, and dramatic policy shifts must be presented as continuity.

But please make no mistake—this is not a status quo document, and the fact that it is seen as a departure from previous policies should give the authors pause, that their words are seen in stark contrast to past approaches. Nuclear doctrine has evolved slowly—sometimes glacially—over the decades, but the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review is not just a sharp turn but in some ways a reversal of doctrine, a glacier running uphill.

The NPR gets important areas right. It restates the long-term, central objectives of nuclear doctrine: to enhance deterrence, to reduce the risk of nuclear ambiguity, to ensure that countries in possession of nuclear weapons know they cannot be employed while escaping consequences that would overwhelm any hoped-for benefit. These statements are valuable and necessary. The importance of alliances is highlighted, which is needed and welcomed. And I certainly would not contest the statement that the world is a riskier place than it was at the time of the 2010 NPR, thanks to the aggressive actions of Moscow against its neighbors and against the United States, and its violation of the INF Treaty and other agreements. Not to mention China’s behavior in the South China Sea and North Korea’s continued development of nuclear and missile capabilities. The NPR even acknowledges what most of the world knows: that the threat from Iran has been reduced thanks to the JCPOA (but then goes ahead and lists Iran as a threat anyway).

In an online debate, a former colleague asked if there was anything I liked in the 2018 NPR. I said Yes, I like the 70 or 80 percent that is largely identical to the 2010 NPR, and I assumed that he liked that much of the 2010 version. But the 20-30% that is new—or missing—is significant and must be discussed.

What concerns me most is that the NPR reverses the clear policy goal and trend of the last 50 years, through successive Administrations, of reducing the number and the role of nuclear weapons. It is crucial to examine the argument for—and the consequences of—the document’s call for new nuclear weapons and for expansion of the circumstances under which the United States would contemplate their use.

New Weapons

I find the justification for developing two new weapons—a lower-yield nuclear warhead for the D-5 ballistic missile and a new low-yield cruise missile, both deployed at sea—to be lacking. (Although the focus of the new NPR is on these low-yield weapons, I note in passing that it reverses the previous Administration’s decision to phase out the B-83, the most powerful warhead in our arsenal, and the only weapon of megaton range). The United States already possesses the most robust, survivable and flexible nuclear arsenal in the world, one that contains hundreds of low-yield weapons, capable of delivery on short order. I don’t believe there is a single U.S. official or general who would say that he would rather own the Russian arsenal than the U.S. arsenal. The argument is made that we need an additional, penetrating method of delivery in order to counter the potential use by Russia of a nonstrategic nuclear weapon in an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy.

The first problem here is that it is far from clear that “escalate to de-escalate” is, in fact, the Russian doctrine. It certainly is not contained in the official, published Russian strategy document. And it is as dangerous to read it into Russian officials’ statements and academic articles as it would be for Russia to read the details of U.S. nuclear doctrine into a Sunday morning tweetstorm.

But even if the assumption of a new Russian doctrine is correct, will the addition of one new retaliation method actually deter Russia from using a nuclear weapon (of any size) if it views its national survival at stake?

Here we enter into the most difficult and speculative issue contained in the NPR and into the central dilemma of nuclear doctrine: that the certainty of weapons use is central to the prevention of their use. That has proven to be true, so far, on the strategic level—think Mutual Assured Destruction—but it is much less clear that it will apply on the nonstrategic level. The NPR’s argument—that a more credible nonstrategic capability would be more usable, and more thinkable for the United States to employ, and that this would actually make it less likely to be used—this is a difficult argument for anyone—expert or layman—to assimilate.

It also ignores that if Russia were to threaten the use of nuclear weapons first, it would be due to its conventional inferiority relative to the United States, not a doubt about our commitment to nuclear retaliation. Even a new system does not alter that inferiority and does not change Russia’s incentive to resort to early nuclear use. If the goal is to deter Russian use, this new system is incapable of doing so because Russian threats have little if anything to do with our nuclear capabilities, but a lack of their own conventional capabilities.

Further, promising Moscow that we would only respond to nonstrategic weapons use with our own nonstrategic weapon may actually embolden Russian first use. As former Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg wrote, “..rather than deterring Russia’s theater nuclear use, the new approach could lead Russia to believe it could use nuclear weapons first without risking the homeland. In this way, the new doctrine arguably lowers the nuclear threshold.”

I am disappointed that the NPR fails to restate something the United States has said several times before: that we do not seek to undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent. In my view, the Russian approach—not only to nuclear doctrine but in all of its foreign policy—is rooted in paranoia, in President Putin’s conviction that the United States actively seeks his overthrow. Now, reiterating that we accept the reality of Russia’s deterrent would not remove his paranoia, but the failure to restate it will only deepen his conviction, with real-world consequences.

I note here that—beyond these two proposed weapons—the NPR, both explicitly and implicitly, leaves the door open for development of new capabilities, with the attendant risk of a new nuclear arms race. It explicitly lays the groundwork for the capabilities necessary to produce quickly new or additional weapons. I strongly support maintaining the unmatched technical prowess of the NNSA and our national laboratories. But, while the NNSA and its budget are currently overburdened, I see no reason to build today a capability for a major policy departure—the creation of new weapons—that could come tomorrow.

The Role of Nuclear Weapons

The 2018 NPR also reverses the long-term trend of narrowing the circumstances under which the United States would even consider employing nuclear weapons. Both in 2010 and in 2018, the NPR says that first use of nuclear weapons will only be considered under “extreme circumstances” to defend the vital interests of the United States and its allies. The 2010 document described a “narrow range of contingencies” in which nuclear weapons may deter a conventional or CBW attack.

By contrast, the 2018 NPR is far more expansive and descriptive in listing contingencies, referring in 30 places to the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks. The authors argue that explicit listing of non-nuclear attacks that could merit a nuclear response—the spelling out of the ‘extreme circumstances’ affecting vital national interests—is simply making explicit what has always been implicit. That’s not the case.

First, it fails to explain why the United States’ overwhelming conventional superiority—to include cyber offensive capabilities—is insufficient to deter and respond to non-nuclear attacks. Implicit is the message to our allies and potential adversaries that we must fall back on our nuclear capabilities because we doubt our own conventional strength. Lack of confidence in conventional strength—this is precisely a central element of Russian doctrine that we should not seek to mirror.

Second, it actually undermines our conventional advantage. Given the U.S. edge, it is patently in our interest to constantly raise the bar on the transition from conventional to nuclear.

To take just one example: the place I fear is the most likely to see nuclear weapons used would be the realization of Pakistan’s threat to use them against an attacking Indian force. The United States has sought with both those partners to decrease the likelihood of that eventuality. It does not help if the United States—more explicitly and publicly than before—endorses the transition from conventional conflict to nuclear conflict as a rational and appropriate decision.

Finally, I worry that this explicit threat by the United States will neither achieve the deterrence it seeks against conventional or cyberattack nor will it reduce the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons.

A Comprehensive Approach to Deterrence

The most obvious change in approach—at least to me as formerly responsible for nonproliferation and arms control—is the NPR’s near complete dismissal of diplomacy as an essential element of national security.

Since Eisenhower, successive Presidents have seen the negotiation of arms control agreements not as a feel-good activity, but as contributions that made Americans more secure, even when our relationship with Russia and challenging international security conditions made such efforts difficult.

Reducing the risk of nuclear war was seen as a job for the whole of government, and not only for the Department of Defense. The 2010 NPR made explicit our commitment to meet our international obligations and to work with other nations to further reduce the risk of nuclear use, to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, and to meet our disarmament obligations. The 2018 version chooses to ignore those commitments and to retreat from the long-established U.S. leadership role.

First, it fails even to mention that the United States, in ratifying the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), committed itself to pursue effective measures to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons leading to their verifiable elimination. The NPR acknowledges the importance of the NPT, which I consider to be the most effective and important international security treaty ever concluded. But it treats the NPT as having created obligations only upon non-nuclear weapons states.

I can tell you that that is not how the rest of the world views the NPT. While Washington and Moscow have eliminated 80 percent of their arsenals since 1970, their inability to move forward on arms reduction since 2010 has undermined the perception of both nations’ commitment to their binding legal obligations. This serves as an excuse for those nations who are reluctant to support stronger nonproliferation measures, and as a temptation for those nations that may contemplate their own nuclear programs.

Second, the NPR weakens the international consensus against testing of nuclear weapons. It says the United States will not seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), without offering a reason. (I am not surprised and nobody could expect the current U.S. Senate to have a serious debate on this complex topic, but the statement represents a rejection of one of the United States key nonproliferation commitments).

I’m glad the NPR supports continued funding of the CTBTO’s international monitoring system, which pays important dividends in our knowledge of other countries’ activities. But in proposing steps to re-establish our testing capabilities, it provides an alibi for other nations to break out of the global testing moratorium. This is the scientific equivalent of an own-goal. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the global moratorium on testing that it engendered, essentially cemented the U.S. technical advantage in place. The United States has conducted more nuclear tests than any other country and has—thanks to the genius of our national labs—greater capacity in computing and other means than any other country. Whether we break the taboo first with a test, or whether we simply encourage others to do so by saying “uh....we’re thinking about it,” it will provide China, Russia and others the ability to develop new weapons designs and close the technical gap faster than almost any other steps we could take (short of handing them the blueprints).

Third, the NPR all but abandons the traditional U.S. leadership in this field. It states that we “will pursue conditions” that are favorable for arms control and we “are open” to proposals for new arms control measures. This is an admission of passivity that is unworthy of a great power. This is not even leading from behind; this is leaving leadership behind.

Fourth, although it is not directly addressed in the NPR, the fact is that the United States currently lacks the credibility to lead in nonproliferation and arms control efforts. The NPR doesn’t help this when it says that future arms control agreements must be “verifiable and enforceable.”

This rings hollow when you consider first that every President who concluded arms control agreements made sure they were verifiable, but no U.S. President has—or could have—concluded an agreement that could be enforced upon the United States. And our credibility is further shredded when an agreement that is verifiable, and as close to enforceable as any nonproliferation agreement has ever been—the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action—is likely to be torn up by our own President. This fact—more than anything explicitly contained in the NPR—is the strongest evidence of a deliberate surrender of US leadership.

Fifth: it’s a good thing that the NPR says some good things about the New Start Treaty, and contradicts what our President reportedly said in a phone call with the Russian President a year ago. I’m deeply disappointed that it doesn’t explicitly support the extension of New Start until 2026. No other step could be so easily taken that would reassure the world and our own citizens about our nuclear intentions, and provide at least an opening for a conversation with a Russian government with which we have profound disagreements.

In case of non-extension, none of us should look forward to 2021 when—for the first time in 50 years—there would be no constraints on Moscow’s ability to build nuclear weapons and resume a quantitative arms race. And it would be a fantasy for anyone in Washington—or in Moscow—to believe that New Start extension should be used as a bargaining chip or held open until the other side meets certain conditions. It is a treaty of reciprocal and equal benefit to both sides, and even the world’s most brilliant deal maker shouldn’t monkey with that fact.

The Role of Congress

It’s easy to be cynical about what Congress can contribute to serious consideration of these new policies. Faced with a threat from Russia—or anywhere else— to the lives and safety of Americans, we perhaps should expect no more from Capitol Hill than “thoughts and prayers.” But we must ask for more from our elected leaders. Passing a thousand-page document that nobody has read may be a sound way to do tax policy, but nuclear policy is still more important.

It should not be taken for granted that all proposals contained in the NPR will be approved and funded by Congress. Recall that the 2002 NPR contained proposals for new weapons that were turned down by Congress.

There are also budget realities associated with replacing and upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal that someday must be addressed. Collectively, we have incurred—through our representatives—a national debt equivalent to more than $60,000 for every man, woman, and child in this nation, with no apparent interest in Washington today in ever reducing that debt. Real defense spending in the latest budget, in inflation-adjusted dollars, will be higher than it was in any year between 1948 and 2008, higher than during the Cold War, Korea or Vietnam. I don’t doubt the real threats to the United States in this world. But I do want to see something more than a laundry list of all desirable capabilities. I want to see an actual effort to prioritize our defense needs within a sustainable budget and a recognition that a mushrooming national debt is itself a threat to national security.

To take just one example: if we are concerned enough about cybersecurity to threaten a nuclear response, can we allocate a little less for nuclear weapons, and a little more than the $2 billion the federal government will devote this year to hardening our critical infrastructure from cyber attack?

Can we get a reliable estimate of the costs of the new weapons systems and other measures proposed in the NPR? Do we know whether it will add tens of billions, or hundreds of billions, to the more than $1.5 trillion that the modernization program of record will expend in the next 30 years?

And let me make one comment about that program of record. I don’t doubt that our aging delivery systems are in need of renewal. But again, hard choices must be made. It is not sufficient to state, as the NPR does, that $1.5 trillion is a small percentage of the anticipated defense budget, and that it is, therefore, unsafe not to fund the program fully. The choice does not have to be either ‘do nothing’ or ‘do everything.’ It is precisely within the mandate of Congress to explore whether less ambitious and expensive choices can be made without unacceptable risk to our security.

At the same time that Congress considers budget issues, I am heartened that it is also considering—for the first time in decades—presidential authority to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. This effort began before the last presidential election and is long overdue. Three pieces of legislation before Congress today would enhance our security and deserve a full hearing:

One would make clear that U.S. first use (i.e., not in response to an attack) is equivalent to war, and would require prior Congressional approval.

One (relatively nonbinding) would declare that it is US policy not to use nuclear weapons first.

And one, specific to the case of North Korea, makes clear that the United States cannot initiate military action against the DPRK—conventional or nuclear—without express Congressional approval.

Now, I understand the reasons that any President, or any Department of Defense, would prefer to have no constraints on their freedom to take unilateral action. However, we are not—yet—in a Russian model of government, and these are matters on which the voice of Congress and of the people must be heard.

The Role of the President

A final topic: the NPR—though issued in the name of a President who probably hasn’t read it—is not meant to be specific to this Administration, but to guide future ones as well. As the Undersecretary of Defense, and one of my predecessors at State, John Rood, said in the rollout of the NPR, context matters. I agree and believe that we must consider today’s unique context in Washington. It is simply not possible to isolate the national and international reaction to this document from the statements and policies of the current President.

I am not opposed to the U.S. President making threatening statements to those who threaten us. It saddens me when the U.S. President’s words sink to the juvenile level of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Un. And that causes the world to wonder about the real purposes of U.S. nuclear plans, and whether the United States should be trusted with the world’s most powerful arsenal, one whose power it proposes to expand.

It is not only the retreat from a leadership role on so many global issues that concerns our allies. It is not only the trustworthiness of a government that unilaterally tears up agreements reached multilaterally. It is also our inability to follow through on the defense of our own interests. The President refuses to implement sanctions against Russia passed with a super-majority by the Congress in legislation he signed. Now, this may be because he has thought and studied deeply in the fields of history and geo-strategy. Or his reluctance to take meaningful action may have another cause. In either case, what would give President Putin cause to believe that we are serious about deterrence either with our current arsenal or with an expanded one? If there is no nonmilitary provocation to which we are prepared to respond proportionately, is there credibility to military “red lines”?

Don’t get me wrong. I am absolutely convinced of Moscow’s desire to destabilize the United States and the West, and aware of the tools it has available to this end. But I hope you understand why I am apprehensive about enhancing the capabilities of a President who has displayed an uninformed fascination with nuclear weapons, and a studied indifference to using other means of power in our national defense.

Deterrence is of course not only to protect us but to protect our allies as well. In all my conversations with partners in Allied governments, I have never heard expressed a concern that the U.S. arsenal was insufficient to protect them, or that “gaps” in the arsenal might give a government in one of those Allied countries a reason to pursue their own nuclear weapons.

What has mattered to our allies is the conviction that the United States sees them as allies and will be true to its word. The US has more allies than any other nuclear power, not just because of our military superiority, but because of our restraint in making threats, and our credibility in making promises. I don’t believe I need to cite examples to say that both of those qualities have been undermined in the last year.


The 2018 NPR is a serious document, written by serious people, that seeks to take a hard look at the hard world we inhabit. I hope it will initiate a serious discussion in the public and the Congress asking whether this great change in direction ultimately enhances or damages our national security; whether we can afford every item listed as desirable; whether or not we want to pursue a whole-of-government approach, including diplomatic leadership, to reducing nuclear dangers.

To distill a complex history to a simple conclusion, our success in avoiding nuclear warfare since 1945 has been due to three factors: first, pro-active U.S. diplomatic and military efforts to negotiate verifiable arms control agreements; second, wise U.S. leadership; and third, simple good luck. I am concerned about the implications of relying only on that third factor.