Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:43 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:43 | SYDNEY

New nuclear times, new nuclear column


Rory Medcalf


7 April 2010 10:39

President Obama has just released the long-awaited US Nuclear Posture Review; world leaders are due to meet in a few days to talk about preventing nuclear terrorism and proliferation; a new START treaty between the US and Russia will soon be signed; and a crucial five-yearly Review Conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will take place next month.

All of which makes this a perfect time for the Lowy Institute to launch its new blog column, Nuclear Reactions. 

In this column, Lowy Institute research staff and a widening range of international expert contributors will offer original insights on the big challenges in reducing nuclear dangers: the disarmament and non-proliferation agenda, new approaches to arms control – especially in Asia – and the implications of the global revival of interest in nuclear energy. And, despite the title, we won't be purely reactive: we will respond to key events but also try to anticipate and influence the debate.

I'll open with a few immediate reactions to the US Nuclear Posture Review and its context. You can read the full text here

This is an important document and a signal of genuine change, even though some in the disarmament movement will dismiss it as largely a status quo set of policies. Sure, there is compromise here; the more conservative side of the US security establishment fought hard, for instance, to ensure that nuclear deterrence remained a paramount policy imperative, and resisted especially the push for something like a declaration that the US would never (again) be first to use nuclear weapons.

But Obama has laid down markers that this NPR is the beginning, not the end, of that debate (an issue I will explore in a future post). There may be no 'sole purpose' declaration – as called for by the likes of Gareth Evans and the commission he recently co-chaired – but it is made clear that the 'fundamental' role of America's nukes is to ensure that no nukes are used, and that the US will try to shape the global conditions for an unequivocal No First Use declaration in future.

The NPR and the 'New START' treaty with Russia – finalised last month and committing to a verifiable cap of 1550 strategic warheads – should be read as a package which, among other things, demonstrates real progress by the US to meeting its disarmament commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. These set the scene for efforts to renew wide support for the NPT and to build consensus against Iran's non-compliance.

All eyes now will be on the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on 12-13 April, where the focus is to tighten global controls on nuclear materials to reduce risks of nuclear terrorism. The decision by Chinese President Hu Jintao to attend is a positive sign. (Indeed, it seems that Kevin Rudd is one of the few global leaders that matter who could well be absent.) 

The NPR and New START should help to shift the high moral ground in the global debate – China will no longer be able to claim that its small arsenal and No First Use policy mean it does not need to do anything else to reduce nuclear dangers.

Obama's policy on nuclear terrorism is not just talk: the NPR signals billions of dollars of spending to support security screening and export controls globally. 

Finally, if you thought it was all peace and love, think again: the NPR flags a US commitment to increase its conventional military power and strengthen missile defences, partly as substitutes for an all-purpose nuclear arsenal. (Of course, it is debatable whether US conventional forces remain – as the NPR contends — 'unsurpassed' everywhere in the world.)

And, intriguingly, the NPR constantly refers to an American commitment to protect 'allies and partners' with an evolving combination of nuclear, conventional and missile-defence capabilities. Who these non-ally partners are, and where (Middle East? Asia?) is not quite clear. Presumably the aim is partly to reassure Iran's neighbours. These are elements of the NPR that warrant close scrutiny.

The Nuclear Reactions column is supported by the Nuclear Security Project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, as part of a wider partnership between the NSP and the Lowy Institute's International Security Program.

Photo by Flickr user Michael Heilemann, used under a Creative Commons license.