Wednesday, October 1, 2014
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America Should Not Lower the Nuclear Threshold

President Bush has pushed stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to the top of the international agenda. Ironic, then, that America's nuclear weapons development program may promote the very proliferation it seeks to prevent, as US Senator Dianne Feinstein explains.

With the world's focus on the debate over Iraq, the war on terror, and the Bush administration's doctrine of unilateral preemption, the American government's new emphasis on the utility of nuclear weapons has not received the attention it deserves. This is unfortunate, as this exploration of new uses for nuclear weapons represents a revolutionary shift in US national security policy.

Today, the world faces unprecedented challenges at the nexus of terror and weapons of mass destruction. With both North Korea and Iran openly pursuing nuclear ambitions and a potential nuclear arms race in South Asia, it is critical that America provide leadership, in both word and in deed, to reduce the risks and the role of nuclear weapons throughout the world.

Instead, the Bush administration seems intent on doing just the opposite. Many of the actions of the American administration, and much of the US government's rhetoric, may actually be increasing the threat from nuclear weapons rather than making the world safer.

The Bush administration's January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review signaled a major change in US nuclear policy by advancing a new triad that integrates nuclear weapons with conventional strike options and blurring the line between the use of conventional and nuclear weapons. It also specified scenarios in which the US might use nuclear weapons first, even against non-nuclear states, and called for a new generation of US nuclear warheads, including low yield or so-called "mini-nukes."

The US has never had a no-first-strike policy, but it has likewise never had a policy such as that embodied in the Nuclear Policy Review. Today, under the terms of the ideas set out in that review, the US contemplates the first use of nuclear weapons, and seeks to integrate tactical battlefield nuclear weapons alongside conventional munitions.

Despite efforts to downplay the significance of the Nuclear Posture Review since its publication, it remains, in my view, extremely provocative and dangerous. Earlier this year, at a hearing of the US Senate's Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, I asked Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, whose Department oversees America's research and development of nuclear weapons, whether the Bush administration wanted to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons. Secretary Abraham said it did not; that his department was only studying adaptations of existing weapons.

Yet, there should be no doubt that the Bush administration is beginning the research and development of new nuclear weapons. Just this year, a 10-year-old ban on the research and development of nuclear weapons below five kilotons--the bomb at Hiroshima was 15 kilotons--was eliminated.

Pushed by the Bush administration, Congress authorized $21 million for the study and development of new nuclear weapons, including a 100-kiloton bunker buster, as well as tactical battlefield nuclear weapons. Moreover, the time to test readiness of the Nevada test site has been moved up from three years to two years, and funding has been provided to produce additional fissile material for new nuclear weapons.

I argued and voted against these new nuclear initiatives in the US Senate earlier this year. Clearly, the nuclear door is being reopened. For, by taking the steps called for in the Nuclear Posture Review--specifically, developing "new capabilities...to defeat emerging threats," including "extensive research and timely fielding of new systems to address these challenges"--the Bush administration is lowering the threshold for the possible use of nuclear weapons by the US or other countries.

This approach is not in America's national interest, nor is it consistent with American traditions and values. A first-use of nuclear weapons by the US should be unthinkable, and responding to a non-nuclear attack with nuclear weapons violates a central tenet of just war and US military tradition. Indeed, nuclear options should not be considered as an extension of conventional options. Why? Because this inevitably lowers the threshold for use.

So, if the US develops nuclear weapons that blur the distinction between conventional and nuclear forces, the message this sends to the rest of the world must be considered. I believe it is critical that the US set a very high international standard for nuclear restraint. If America does not, it may very likely encourage others to develop their own standards and their own nuclear arsenals. That seems to be happening.

Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, and the history of bloody warfare between them presents a major and ongoing security threat to South Asia. If either country adhered to the thinking embodied in the Bush administration's new nuclear policy, there would be little reason for each not to seek to integrate nuclear weapons even more deeply into their own contingency plans--and possibly use them.

At a time when the US brands as "evil" certain countries based, in part, on their pursuit of nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction, it must be especially careful in how it considers its own options and contingencies regarding nuclear weapons.

If the US is not careful, our own new nuclear posture could provoke the very nuclear-proliferation activities we are seeking to prevent.

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