If President Obama ever got his wish of a world free of nuclear weapons, the United States would be the greatest beneficiary. Obama's goal is solidly in the national interest.
That's also why it will never happen.
Because of the United States' overwhelming superiority in conventional arms, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea seek an asymmetrical edge — nuclear weapons — as a deterrent. Nor would strategic competitors such as Russia and China consent to nuclear disarmament, given their inability to match our dominance in conventional combat.
Last week, Obama announced an important change to a document called the Nuclear Posture Review, a move that represented another step toward his daydream of a nuke-free world.
He said the United States would not use nukes to retaliate if hit with biological or chemical weapons or a devastating cyber-attack. Washington wouldn't reply with nukes, that is, unless the perpetrator was another nuclear power, or a non-signer or violator of the nonproliferation agreement.
With that step, as The New York Times put it, Obama "eliminated much of the ambiguity that has deliberately existed in American nuclear policy since the opening days of the Cold War."
The new nuclear "posture" contained an important qualifier, however. It said the U.S. would reconsider its pledge not to use nukes after a biological attack — if those weapons ever advance to the point that they make us vulnerable to a devastating strike.
So Obama's move didn't remove all the ambiguity, but it was troubling nevertheless. Why would a U.S. commander in chief want to remove some of a potential adversary's misgivings about how we might respond?
Ambiguity can be a powerful deterrent. A policy of studied ambiguity has kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait since the 1970s. Washington has supplied arms to Taiwan, but we haven't said what we would do if Taiwan were attacked by China. Instead, we left Beijing to wonder. Ambiguity gives potential adversaries another reason to think twice.
Before Obama's change, the U.S. reserved the right to use nukes to deter a wide range of threats, including chemical or biological weapons or even a massive conventional attack. Adversaries didn't know what we'd do. They knew there was a chance they risked a nuclear response, and that doubt added to U.S. security.
David Trachtenberg, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security under President Bush, said Obama's shift abandoned a policy that had had continuity through both Republican and Democratic administrations.
"In essence, the implicit threat that has always been there — that we might respond to a WMD attack with nuclear weapons — seems to have gone by the boards," Trachtenberg said in an interview. "I think that is a major shift and I think also what it does in trying to limit proliferation may actually encourage proliferation of nuclear weapons."
Here's why. The administration is pushing to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal — on Thursday, Obama signed a treaty with the Russians that will do just that. At the same time, it is trying to develop conventional substitutes for nukes.
But the very thing that allows us to diminish our reliance on nuclear bombs — our overwhelming superiority in conventional warfare — is what drives adversaries to seek their own nuclear arsenals. If you're a third-rate power without much in the way of smart bombs or tank battalions, a nuclear deterrent is a pretty good equalizer.
Another problem, Trachtenberg said, is that the new policy erodes the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
If Iran acquires the bomb, the U.S. would undoubtedly try to forestall a Middle East arms race by extending nuclear protection to others in the region. But how much credibility would that guarantee have, given Obama's dithering over Iran over the last year, and last week's change in nuclear policy — in which Obama signaled a reluctance to use nukes to deter aggression?
Obama has made it much more likely that the birth of the Iranian bomb will trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
In geopolitics, the canny use of ambiguity can help maintain the balance of power, contain adversaries and prevent an outbreak of hostilities. How could it possibly improve our security to remove a measure of doubt from the mind of a potential adversary?