On balance, the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (PDF) signals more continuity than change. The review wisely clarifies the limited but essential role that nuclear weapons play in safeguarding U.S. national security through deterrence. Unfortunately, it fails to set the stage for dramatic and necessary changes to a bloated and outdated force structure because it reaffirms the U.S. commitment to other countries that imposes a huge burden on our military and on U.S. taxpayers.
The document anticipates that conventional weapons – namely a forward U.S. troop presence and ballistic missile defenses – will take on a greater share of the deterrence burden as the importance of nuclear weapons recede. This is a costly proposition at a time when U.S. military spending is already at a post-World War II high.
Stronger leadership is essential to reining in the entire nuclear weapons enterprise – the warheads and delivery platforms, as well as the laboratories and bureaucracies that support them. A more emphatic “no first use” policy would have assisted in this endeavor. The Obama administration chose instead to split the difference between conservatives who favor an expanded role for nuclear weapons and liberals who anticipate their complete elimination.
The NPR’s middle ground stance on first use has elicited most of the media’s attention, but the role that the U.S. military plays around the world – a role highlighted by the NPR’s repeated reassurances that our allies and partners will be covered by the U.S. security umbrella – deserves even greater scrutiny. Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States continues to carry the burden for security in Europe and East Asia. The costs of this burden are growing, but the NPR merely sets the stage for the continuation of this worrisome trend.