The GOP’s Pre-11/91 Mindset

We might consider the conservative reaction to Obama’s nuclear arms reduction treaty as a microcosm of the right’s overall theory on foreign policy: that the means need have no relation to the end, and that power is its own good, even and especially for its own sake. This is the only context in which the following excerpt makes sense:

In a post-Cold War world, the number and yield of nuclear weapons a country possesses is almost a technicality, with no likelihood of ever having a real-world impact. You can instead treat nuclear capacity as a “yes/no” question — once a “yes” is indicated, that’s all you need to know about the country’s ability to deter any serious threat. Ever. Deterrence only works against state actors — not against terrorists! — and there are no bellicose state actors with ICBMs, and thus no need for a deterrent value over “one.” Accordingly, reduction of nuclear stockpiles on par with the only other serious nuclear power can only produce good results, in the form of safety and massive, massive savings.

And even given a Cold War world, the number of nuclear weapons a country possesses is, again, academic after a certain point. The goal of a nuclear deterrent is realized once a country can preserve a second-strike capability totaling over 300 megatons — the generally agreed-upon number necessary to obliterate all major city centers in a U.S./Russia sized nation. Our submarine fleet alone, from which we can assume a 50% survival rate after any first strike, has enough nuclear warheads to guarantee that value.

Scholars still debate whether the massive Cold War nuclear buildup was ever necessary to preserve a serious deterrent. What’s beyond debate, today, is that unless you take some perverse pride in the number of bombs your country has, there’s no reason to worry about a mutual draw-down.

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6 comments

  1. The Right is not making a rational choice – they are making an emotional one. Don’t confuse them with logic and facts ;-)

  2. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. One reason why a state would want a nuclear arsenal (much) greater than one warhead is the National Missile Defence system. If such a system is ever successfully implemented (which, granted, doesn’t look to be happening for a long time), the dividing line will not be between “no warheads” and “one warhead”, but “enough warheards to blast through the shield” and “not enough to do that”.

  3. Right, but that presumes we’d ever want to strike a target, or deter a target, with a missle defense shield. If we can’t get one ourselves, I’m not worried about China, or, uh, isolated backregions of Afghanistan.

  4. Well, I’m thinking more about the perspective from the other nuclear powers, in particular Russia (and to a lesser extent China).

    It’s completely true that the American and Russian arsenals are so absurdly large that there’s plenty of room for reductions. But there’s also a lower limit to how far either side can go while still maintaining a credible deterrence, and that limit will be a good deal higher with a missile shield in place.

  5. Do we even need to deter Russia, though? The only eventuality in which they’re our enemy again is if some coup displaces the responsible government, and places a terrorist madman in charge. And deterrence won’t save us then.

  6. You’ve got to see things from Moscow’s perspective. In the last 25 years, their country has changed from one of just two global superpowers to a not entirely stable second-rank power with an unstable economy and a ridiculously inefficient and outdated conventional military. Meanwhile, they’re having trouble in the Caucasus, practically all of their old allies have or are in the process of breaking away from their sphere of influence, NATO is expading right up to their borders in the West, and China is growing at a phenomenal rate in the East.

    Basically, their nuclear arsenal is pretty much the only thing that Russia can still depend on for their great power status, and being a nuclear great power means at least maintaining a credible second strike capability.

    So does the US need to deter Russia? Not really, except to the extent that a certain level of deterrence is always present in nuclear strategy. But Russia most certainly needs to deter NATO, and to an even greater degree China.

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