It was only five months ago that the media was captivated by a historic meeting between the leader of North Korea Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump, with breathless promises of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Only a few months later, North Korea has disappeared from the headlines.
Now, many Americans probably have no idea that after months of fraught negotiations, the State Department announced that a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kim Jong-Un’s right-hand man scheduled for today has been postponed to a later date. Last week, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea even threatened to “restart” its nuclear program if the U.S. did not ease sanctions.
While the story may have lost our attention, the importance of nuclear power as an important component of American strategy should not. With the Democrats now in control of the House, we can expect U.S. nuclear strategy to come into the spotlight again as the newly-elected majority will undoubtedly take the President to task on areas of disagreement in his nuclear posture.
Nuclear weapons have not been used for 73 years, and the U.S. is the only country to have ever used a nuclear bomb. Through the height of the Cold War, although conventional proxy wars raged in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, the two great powers never resorted to using nuclear weapons. After the fall of the Soviet Union, with the U.S. enjoying unchallenged hegemony, nuclear weapons faded from the limelight, attention turning to conventional conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The concept of deterrence was and is a central element of U.S. strategy to prevent nuclear war. As the theory went, the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons and the fear of retaliation would prevent war and aggression. Not only that, a “nuclear taboo,” a term coined by author and political scientist Nina Tannenwald, has developed: a normative prohibition against and a stigma associated with using nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear weapons is perceived as unacceptable and illegitimate. This has led to a raft of arms control and reduction agreements, negative security assurances, and commitments to achieving a “nuclear zero.”
While some have gone so far as to say that nuclear weapons “don’t matter,” today’s volatile and fluctuating threat environment make nuclear weapons a significant concern. The increasing power of near-peer competitors, weakening arms control agreements, and technological modernization threaten the “nuclear taboo.” North Korea has achieved several breakthroughs in its nuclear program. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia illustrate the uncertainty of dealing with bad actors.
While the dream of a “world without nuclear weapons” seems far off, if not impossible, the U.S. can take concrete steps to maintain commitments to nonproliferation and arms control, maintain a credible deterrence, and assure allies.
It seems unlikely that the U.S. can convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, but the U.S. can work with other nuclear powers and its allies and partners to strengthen export controls and improve measures to prevent smuggling of nuclear material.
The Department of Defense’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) includes developing low-yield or “tactical” nuclear weapons, much smaller nuclear weapons that can be used in a precise, targeted way. According to the Nuclear Posture Review, Russia and other near-peer competitors have devoted significant resources to developing low-yield nuclear warheads, operating under the assumption that limited nuclear war by using “tactical” nuclear weapons can offer a decisive advantage in lower-level conflict.
Former Secretary of State George Schultz and others have criticized the Nuclear Posture, arguing that developing low-yield nuclear warheads decreases the threshold for nuclear war, as decision makers may feel less restrained from using a smaller-scale weapon. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has also expressed concerns of the potentially “destabilizing” effects of low-yield weapons and is not convinced that “limited nuclear war” is possible. Mattis still maintains, however, that deploying these weapons are critical to closing gaps in deterrence and preventing miscalculation.
One problem with nuclear deterrence and the “nuclear taboo” is that hostile actors may not regard U.S. deterrence as credible, since U.S. inhibitions would prevent them from employing large-scale, earth-shattering nuclear missiles, allowing hostile actors to believe they can get away with using limited nuclear force. To close any gaps in our deterrence, the U.S. should expand low-yield options to prevent any miscalculation. Disabusing others of the usability of low-yield weapons thereby raises the threshold for nuclear war.
These measures along with increasing transparency and communication with relevant stakeholders and reassuring others of our commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will demonstrate our good faith and reduce the risk of nuclear war.
Our nuclear strategy should not be overrun with hysteria. Embarking on an indiscriminate arms buildup would be ineffective, and concern over nuclear power should not turn into obsession, distracting from other important issues of national concern.
But policymakers and citizens should not take for granted the 73 years of relative peace without the use of nuclear weapons and recognize the obligation to ourselves and posterity to continue that peace.
Nathanael Cheng is a senior studying politics and a George Washington Fellow.