US Nuclear Strategy: A Critique of Guy Roberts’s Defence of Deterrence

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Guy Roberts was invited to give a keynote talk at the 2021 Congress of the Canadian Peace Research Association. [1 ] Roberts had played a role in composing the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review 2018 (NPR 2018) under the Trump administration. He is now playing a role in composing the new NPR that the Biden administration will publish probably within eight months or so. His talk was focused on justifying the nuclear deterrence policy and the Pentagon’s request for a budget increase of about 1.2 trillion dollars to ‘’modernize’’ the US nuclear arsenal system. Roberts also expressed his opposition to the No First Use (NFU) proposal that the nuclear disarmament movement has been promoting for some time.

Roberts’s justification for the trillion-dollar boost in the US defense budget is that both Russia and China have been building new types of nuclear bomb delivery systems over the last decade, Russia thereby allegedly violating the INF treaty (Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty). To maintain a strong deterrent, Roberts asserts that the US must match these Chinese and Russian nuclear weapons with its own new weapons systems.

Roberts asserted that nuclear weapons are a ‘’political tool’’ and that they are essential to deter any nation from attacking the United States or its allies. In his view, the need for deterrence arises from ‘’logical and moral’’ considerations based on a ‘’realistic view of human nature’’. Like human beings, nations can sometimes be malevolent, he observed. He underlined that nuclear deterrence implies a threat to destroy a nation that might attack the US or its allies.

Roberts warned that an attack on the US by means of overwhelming conventional forces could trigger an American nuclear retaliation. Such a policy, already part of NPR 2018, if endorsed by Biden, would be incompatible with No First Use.

Guy Roberts claimed that the 75 years of non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945 were the result of ‘’insurance’’ against major power conflicts provided by these weapons. He did not mention the fact that Eric Schlosser [2],  Benoît Pelopidas [3] in Princeton, Scott Sagan at Stanford [4], recently Hellman and Cerf [5], and many others, have documented and judged that sheer luck helped to avoid nuclear war during events like the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the Able Archer NATO exercise of November 1983 [6]. Roberts also failed to mention the work of Professor Nina Tannenwald at Brown University who has found considerable historical evidence that a moral norm, the ‘’Nuclear Taboo’’, also played a vital role in preventing several conflicts from escalating to nuclear war [7].

Roberts complained about Russia allegedly violating nuclear arms treaties. He did not mention that the US pulled out of the ABM treaty in 2002 and out of the INF treaty in 2019, both treaties being highly valued in the arms control community. He then went on to describe the new nuclear bomb delivery systems that the 1.2 trillion dollar budget boost will give the US. He ended by expressing wishes for nuclear disarmament, but also regretting that this could not happen in his lifetime. If that is his wish, why didn’t he mention the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that became effective on 22 January 2021?

In critique of Roberts’s stance one can point out a contradiction in the attributes claimed for nuclear deterrence. On the one hand, the claim is that nuclear deterrence is what kept the peace for 75 years between the US and Russia. On the other hand, the Pentagon’s military doctrine in NPR 2018 voiced the frightening warning that a conventional or a cyber attack on the US or its allies could trigger a nuclear response.  One is thus forced to conclude that the US military thinks that nuclear deterrence can fail under certain circumstances. This is recognized explicitly in NPR 2018. For nuclear missiles under computer control, one must add to the list of potential dangers, that a computer glitch, combined with some operator error, could trigger a nuclear missile launch [8].

Guy Roberts, and his colleagues, seem to pay no attention to public opinion polls in the US and Canada which show that a majority of people in these countries support the nuclear disarmament movement. A recent public opinion poll in Canada revealed that 74 percent of the people would like the Canadian government to endorse the TPNW [9].  In the US a public opinion poll in 2020 showed that only 20 percent of Americans would support a nuclear first strike, and only 31 percent support the Pentagon’s ‘’modernization’’ trillion-dollar proposal [10]. In this realm of existential importance, the government elites in the nuclear powers do not want to apply the basic principles of democracy.

A recent book by Sauer et al. has discussed how it would be possible to achieve international security by non-nuclear means and benefit from a regime of ‘’non-nuclear’’ peace [11]. This would entail strong cooperation on a planetary scale.  In a report of recent cooperative work Dr Tong Zhao came to this striking conclusion: ‘’First and most importantly, leaders should endorse the principle of cooperative security. Doing so would highlight the fact that some common threats, and nuclear risks in particular, cannot be addressed through military competition and power struggles and can only be effectively contained through international cooperation.’’ [12]

The aviation industry, and closely connected to it the tourism industry, is an excellent example of what worldwide cooperation can achieve. As we tackle arms control, climate preservation, pollution, and planetary health care, international cooperation, as daily practiced in almost all fields of human endeavor, will be our guide.

References

-1. Guy Roberts, ‘’Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent and the Nuclear Posture Review’’, keynote address at the 2021 Congress of the Canadian Peace Research Association (CPRA), 3 June 2021.

-2.  Eric Schlosser, Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Penguin Books, 2013.

-3. Benoît Pelopidas, chapter 1 in the book edited by George P. Shultz and James E. Goodby, The War That Must Never Be Fought, Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence, Hoover Institution Press, 2015. Pelopidas’s chapter is entitled: ‘’A bet portrayed as a certainty: reassessing the added deterrent value of nuclear weapons’’.

-4. Scott Sagan, The Limits of Safety, Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons, Princeton University Press, 1993.

-5. Martin E. Hellman and Vinton G. Cerf, ‘’An existential discussion: what is the probability of nuclear war?’’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 18 March 2021.

-6. Beth A. Fischer, The Reagan Reversal, Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War, University of Missouri Press, 1997.

-7. N. Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons since 1945, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

-8. Adam Wynne, personal communication in March 2021.

-9. Nanos poll at web site

-10. J. Baron and S. Herzog, ‘’Poll: What the American public likes and hates about Trump’s nuclear policies’’, 27 April 2020.  web site

-11. T. Sauer, J. Kustermans and B. Segaert, Non-nuclear Peace, Beyond the Nuclear Ban Treaty, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

-12. Brad Roberts, Andreij Baklitskiy, Tong Zhao, and Lewis A. Dunn, Major Power Rivalry and Nuclear Risk Reduction, Perspectives from Russia, China, and the United States, May 2020, pdf here


Michel A. Duguay, physicist, retired from Laval University

[header image: “UGM-73 Poseidon (C3) Submarine Nuclear Missile” by rocbolt is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 ]

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