New presidential guidance may, finally, render obsolete the Mutual Assured Destruction paradigm that has structured US nuclear strategy and arms-control policy for over 50 years – if a security dilemma can be avoided.

Conceding that his goal of a world without nuclear weapons is unlikely to be achieved in his lifetime, US President Barack Obama has promised to do all he can to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national-security policy. But that promise has been greeted with scepticism by nuclear-disarmament advocates, for it is invariably accompanied by the caveat: ‘as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure US allies and other security partners that they can count on America’s security commitments.’ The apparent contradiction between reducing the role of nuclear weapons and reconfirming – even enlarging – the international scope of the US nuclear protective umbrella was not resolved in the administration’s elaborate, 65-page ‘Nuclear Posture Review Report’ presented to Congress in April 2010. Indeed, that document’s effort to explain and synthesise the thinking about nuclear strategy in the White House, the Pentagon, and the Department of State only made the US nuclear posture more confusing.

In the spring of 2013, however, the Obama administration released an unclassified version of new guidance the president had issued to the US military, outlining steps toward a coherent grand strategy that can serve both the imperatives of reducing the role of nuclear weapons and globally deterring attacks. The new guidance, made available to the media on 19 June, the day of Obama’s Berlin address on foreign policy (but not mentioned in his speech), has thus far not received the public attention it deserves. It warrants widespread scrutiny for, if faithfully implemented by the Pentagon, it can finally render obsolete the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) paradigm that has structured US nuclear strategy and arms-control policy for over 50 years; and fresh initiatives will be required to fill the resulting operational and doctrinal gaps. Efforts to implement this démarche need to be carefully designed and explained to prevent them from being misinterpreted by the Russians and the Chinese as moves to gain decisive offensive strategic superiority over them, which they will try to counter with major new augmentations of their forces.

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Seyom Brown is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the American Security Project in Washington DC. He is the author of The Faces of Power: Constancy and Change in US Foreign Policy from Truman to Obama (Columbia University Press, forthcoming).

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2013–January 2014

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