John Bolton: Still Wrong About Nuclear Weapons

Everybody’s favorite former ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, is back with his second op-ed on nuclear policy in as many weeks (h/t Greg Scoblete).  This time, writing in the Washington Times, Ambassador Bolton frets that the Obama administration’s commitment to New START and the negative security guarantees made in the administration's Nuclear Posture Review are going to make American allies uneasy—despite all available evidence suggesting that they are not.
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Apparently Ambassador Bolton is worried that reductions in America’s strategic nuclear arsenal and declarations in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review that forgo nuclear retaliation against chemical and biological attacks will undermine U.S. extended deterrence.  These moves are apparently poking holes in America’s “nuclear umbrella” thereby leaving American allies vulnerable to blackmail by Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal—which was not included in the cuts made by New START.  The Obama administration’s decision to scrap missile defense plans has left Europe vulnerable to Russian invasion and Japan on the verge of being blackmailed by China and North Korea’s ballistic missile arsenals.   And to top it off, all of this will lead to a new round of nuclear proliferation—this time, not by those awful rogue states, but by America’s own allies.

Once again, there’s a lot wrong here—so why not start off the same way as before

Bolton still insists on repeating Republican talking points about the Obama administration’s missile defense strategy that are simply not true.  This time Bolton suggests that Japan is being left vulnerable to North Korean and Chinese ballistic missiles by the lack of effective regional missile defenses.  He is correct that ballistic missile arsenals deployed by Pyonyang and Beijing are worrisome to the Japanese, but that is also why the United States is developing more advanced versions of the SM-3 ballistic missile interceptor jointly with Tokyo and is refining plans to deploy sea-based Aegis missile defenses in Northeast Asia to protect Japan and other American allies in Asia.  Bolton also repeats the tired line that removal of radar installations in the Czech Republic and ten ground-based interceptors in Poland were a betrayal of Europe as some sort of quid pro quo for Moscow’s agreement on New START.  Whatever the reason it is hard to see how this makes Bolton’s larger case about needing to deter Moscow aggressive intentions toward Europe since the X-band radar that would have been deployed to the Czech Republic would have been unable to detect Russian missile launches according to a cable obtained by Wikileaks, and ten ground-based interceptors of any capability would be less than useless against a strategic arsenal the size of Moscow’s.  He also claims that this somehow will leave America unprotected and therefore either unwilling, or unable, to come to Europe’s defense as Red Army…er…Tsarist forces…um, I mean…Russian military come pouring in.  But, according to the Congressional Budget Office, missile defense deployment in Europe is not necessary to defend the United States. 

Hitting on the “negative security assurances” contained in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review—the promise to eschew nuclear retaliation against chemical and biological attacks—is merely a rhetorical device Bolton uses as a preemptive strike against the possible institution of an American No First Use policy.  To quote the former ambassador: 

Within the administration, there are strong advocates for America pledging “no first use” of nuclear weapons. Although the nuclear posture review “only” expanded “negative security assurances” somewhat, there is little doubt that “no first use” is alive and well in internal administration councils. 

An American No First Use policy has been suggested in academic literature most prominently by Scott Sagan in his 2009 article “The Case for No First Use” and more recently by Michael Gerson in “No First Use: The Next Step for U.S. Nuclear Policy,” while also gaining traction with policymakers as well.  In a talk at Columbia University last summer then-Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg suggested the Nuclear Posture Review was putting the United States “on the road” to a No First Use policy, but that it was still a step the administration was not ready to take.

There is a lot to be said against such a policy—namely that it ties one’s hands politically while only providing a dubious rhetorical assurance to potential adversaries that might not take the claim seriously—and Bolton may be correct to worry that No First Use is on the horizon.  But the point of his argument is not that John Bolton thinks this policy is wrong or that this policy makes John Bolton apprehensive, it’s that this policy makes American allies fearful that American security guarantees lack credibility.  As with numerous other claims throughout this piece, Bolton makes no effort to demonstrate that America’s allies actually regard these policies as problematic.  It is one thing to offer examples of allied leaders decrying the Nuclear Posture Review, but Bolton instead offers only his speculation on the subject.

Moving on, Bolton wonders “whether the aging [NATO] alliance can renew its original focus on defending against Moscow.”  Of course, defending Europe against Russia would actually be a useful purpose for NATO—unlike the superfluous missions it has undertaken in the decades since the Cold War’s end—and might conceivably be in America’s interest (unlike say, aerial regime change operations in North Africa), but is Moscow actually threatening Europe currently?  Sure, the former superpower has been aggressively active in its periphery and in a number of former Soviet republics over the past several years, but does this really presage an invasion, or at the very least nuclear blackmail, of Europe on the horizon?

Apparently the Europeans are not that worried about such a scenario—as Bolton himself points out:

Europeans should be very worried that they are increasingly on their own to face the re-emerging threat of Russian belligerence. Because the New START treaty does not limit tactical nuclear weapons, Europe, simply because of geographic proximity, is most vulnerable to Russia’s advantage in that category. It is thus highly ironic that some NATO countries have recently called for removing the last U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, which will simply enhance Russia’s existing lead.

What’s ironic is that Bolton prefaces his argument on the supposed fact that America’s allies “clearly see” threats enhanced by the Obama administration’s moves vis-à-vis America’s strategic arsenal, but, without an example to back up this claim, it later turns out that they “should be” and it is “ironic” that they are actually not all that concerned.  Greg Scoblete picked up on this sloppy reasoning over at the Compass, summarizing Bolton’s concern over removal of American tactical nuclear weapons from the continent at the behest of European leaders, “In other words, Europe isn't all that afraid of the re-emerging threat of Russian belligerence.”

The worries about Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal itself are also overwrought.  Yes, Moscow has a large number of tactical nuclear weapons and it would be nice if they got rid of one or two of them.  But the possession of such a large arsenal hardly translates into much influence over events in Europe.  Tactical nuclear weapons are not usable as a means for blackmailing European governments by threats against cities and civilian populations.  Tactical, or “battlefield”, nuclear weapons are meant precisely for “battlefield” situations—namely to inflict damage on conventional armored forces to provide for superiority by defending forces or to allow relatively unimpeded access to an adversary’s territory.  Such weapons are of limited to no use against American strategic forces.  

The long-running complaint that Obama didn’t do enough to include reductions in Russia’s tactical arsenal in New START is weak for two reasons.  First, it was never likely that the Obama administration could have convinced Moscow to reduce its number of tactical nuclear weapons going into the negotiations.  Why should the negotiators have risked real reductions in each country’s strategic arsenals by pushing for a deal which was never going to happen in the first place?  Besides, critics of New START complain, erroneously, that the administration traded away too much for the deal already in place—do they believe Moscow would have offered to do away with a large number of tactical nuclear weapons free of charge?  More importantly, Americans who fear Russia’s tactical arsenal ignore the fact that it might not necessarily be kept around for use in a war against the United States.  Russia shares a long land border with China that is mostly indefensible using conventional forces.  While there is no doubt a not insignificant number of Russian tactical weapons are kept around on the off-chance Germany starts feeling frisky, these weapons are more likely viewed as a defense against any contingency with China that might lead Beijing to try and wrest Siberia away or attempt a march through Central Asia to the heart of Russia.

The one place the former ambassador—and all-time great mustache aficionado—may be on solid footing is his concern that perceptions of American security guarantees may effect the proliferation decisions of American allies.  The U.S. nuclear umbrella has long been viewed as the most effective deterrent to pursuit of an indigenous nuclear program by allies such as Japan and South Korea in Asia to Germany and Italy in Europe.  It is possible, but unlikely, that European countries would seek nuclear weapons to protect against Russian aggression if the U.S. nuclear umbrella were in doubt.  It is more likely, but still far from guaranteed, that worries about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence would drive South Korea and Japan to seek nuclear weapons because of the dual threats of North Korea and China.  While this is not necessarily desirable, would South Korean and Japanese nuclear programs really be the worst scenarios imaginable?  The traditional fear of nuclear proliferation has been that proliferation in one country would cause a chain reaction leading precipitously to proliferation in others.  As Frank Gavin, among others, has pointed out, nuclear chain reactions and nuclear tipping points rarely occur.  The one historical example might be when India detonated a nuclear weapon in 1974 in response to China’s development of the bomb ten years before, and concluded with the dueling Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998.  That particular chain reaction took over thirty years from the original Chinese test in 1964 to come to fruition.  There is nothing saying that decisions to “go nuclear” by Seoul and Tokyo would lead to a similar pattern considering their primary potential adversaries—China and North Korea—already possess nuclear weapons, but a proliferation chain taking place at half the speed of the one cited would allow plenty of time for outside powers to intervene diplomatically or adjust militarily to the new strategic reality.

No matter the likely outcome of proliferation efforts by U.S. allies, Ambassador Bolton offers no indication that these states are considering their own nuclear programs.  Japan is unlikely to pursue its own nuclear weapons program due in large part to the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the more recent nuclear disaster at the Fukashima Daiichi nuclear plant following the earthquake and tsunami in March.  More importantly, are other states, such as South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, or Germany, currently threatening to pursue indigenous nuclear capabilities unless ensured of the credibility of America’s nuclear umbrella?  If so, Bolton gives no indication.

At the end of the day, Ambassador Bolton’s main fears are unrealistic, and his realistic fear is overblown.  Fear-mongering op-eds don’t promote rational debate and irrational debate too often leads to irrational policies.  There is much to criticize about the Obama administration’s missile defense strategy and proposed abolition of nuclear weapons, but Bolton’s outrage and suppositions don’t address those critiques.  Instead, the former ambassador distorts reality to push for more nuclear weapons and missile defenses that are unnecessary for deterring aggression against the United States and creates out of whole cloth supposed fears on behalf of allies that American extended deterrence is no longer viable.

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