President Obama continues to favor the creation of a “nuclear weapons-free world.” This explicit preference is more than naive; it is also undesirable in principle. For Israel, in particular, Obama’s solution could likely open the doors to unendurable enemy aggressions. However unintended, therefore, it could become an utterly Final Solution.
Historically, risks of war are not generally heightened by presumed powers of destruction. Rather, they are the result of assorted adversaries who may convincingly promise cooperation and coexistence, but who in reality dream of victory or conquest. Most worrisome, to be sure, are those jihadist leaders who might combine diplomatic recalcitrance and nuclear capacity with irrationality.
For Israel, of course, the pertinent overriding concern is now Iran. By themselves, nuclear weapons are not the problem. In themselves, these weapons are neither good nor evil. In certain cases they can actually provide the only credible basis for existentially viable deterrence.
For Israel, as I have frequently pointed out in The Jewish Press, nuclear weapons, whether deliberately ambiguous or selectively disclosed, can serve as indispensable impediments to a major war. For Israel, a world without nuclear weapons would be a world of perpetual insecurity and intolerable vulnerability.
The president of the United States is thinking against history. Instead, he should now be looking toward a world that is freer of risks for war and terror. He should focus, especially, on creating an improved U.S. strategic doctrine that would target not only principal jihadist adversaries, but also still-prospective national foes in Russia, North Korea, Iran, and a possibly post-coup Pakistan. Importantly, any such doctrine could have profound and determinable security implications for Israel.
The United States first began to codify various doctrines of nuclear deterrence during the 1950s. At that time, the world was tightly bipolar and the enemy was the Soviet Union. American national security was openly premised on a strategic policy called “massive retaliation.” Over time, that stance became “flexible response.”
Today, the world confronts multiple and inter-penetrating axes of real and potentially violent conflict. There are almost four times as many countries as existed in 1945. In this expressly multipolar world, Russia, which had assumed diminished importance in optimistic American strategic calculations after the fall of the Soviet Union, is once again a major security concern.
Russia’s leaders have issued plainly belligerent declarations on the resumption of Russian long-range bomber flights, and on corollary Russian intentions to expand production of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Presently, Russian nuclearization proceeds with nary a nod of respect for President Obama’s high-minded stance on “a world free of nuclear weapons.” Quite the contrary.
The Russians are largely spurred on in their ambitious nuclear invigorations by an understandable fear of planned U.S. ballistic missile defenses in Europe. Such active defenses, at least in the Russian view, threaten the unassailable and mutually agreed upon deterrence logic of “mutual vulnerability.”
What should we do? This is the single most important question that needs to be asked, by the president of the United States and also by his Republican opponents. In fact, unless they can all answer this existential question satisfactorily, nothing else in their respective platforms will matter at all.
There are answers. It is time to gather together America’s best strategic thinkers and put them to work on a present-day equivalent of the Manhattan Project. This time, the task would not be to develop any new form of super weapon, yet it should also not become a pretext to oppose nuclear weapons per se. Without a nuclear “balance of terror” during the Cold War, it is likely there would have been a third world war.
Among other things, an American strategic brain trust will need to consider controversial matters of nuclear targeting. These issues would concern basic differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (“countervalue” targeting), and the targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (“counterforce” targeting).
At a time when the American president draws strategic policy options from idealized assumptions about nuclear disarmament, and when his Republican opponents ignore complex national defense subjects altogether, Americans need to understand that they are at renewed risk of unprecedented enemy attacks. For Israel, a similar risk of enemy aggression stems from the obvious interrelatedness of our national goals and strategies.
There is no intellectually defensible reason for Americans or Israelis to argue for a “nuclear weapons-free world.” There is incontestable cause, however, for creating an improved and thoroughly up-to-date U.S. strategic doctrine. In contrast to empty presidential witticisms concerning global denuclearization, or to Republican candidates’ total disregard for U.S. strategic doctrine, such a comprehensive and feasible plan could serve critical national security needs in Washington and Jerusalem.
Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of political science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.