The United States on Tuesday announced a new nuclear weapons policy that gives top priority to fighting terrorism and proliferation, rather than deterring or responding to a nuclear attack by a foreign country. The policy promises not to use atomic weapons against non-nuclear states, but issues a stern warning for countries that ignore global non-proliferation rules. Initial reaction among experts and members of Congress has been mixed.
The policy document called the Nuclear Posture Review specifically says the United States will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the nation's security strategy. It lays out a plan to expand conventional capabilities, to rely on existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons for deterrence against nuclear powers like Russia and China, and to focus on preventing terrorists and rogue states from acquiring such weapons.
In a rare appearance at the Pentagon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the document recalibrates America's nuclear priorities, without affecting its ability to defend itself or its allies.
"For generations, the United States' nuclear deterrent has helped prevent proliferation by providing our non-nuclear allies in NATO, the Pacific and elsewhere with reassurance and security. The policies outlined in this review allow us to continue that stabilizing role," said the secretary of state.
The document commits the United States not to use atomic weapons against countries that do not have them and that are not trying to acquire them or spread nuclear technology or materials, even if such countries were to attack the United States with biological or chemical weapons.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates noted that there is no such commitment for countries that do not abide by international non-proliferation rules.
"If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is that if you're going to play by the rules, if you're going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you. But if you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you," said the secretary of defense.
Still, Gates called the use of nuclear weapons a "last resort.".
Senior military leaders appeared at the briefing to endorse the plan, saying it will not affect the credibility of America's strategic deterrent or their ability to defend the United States or meet treaty obligations.
Members of Congress split mainly along party lines in reacting to the new policy. And some analysts are expressing concern about it, particularly regarding the decision to modernize the current nuclear arsenal rather than develop new weapons.
Among them is Thomas Donnelly of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
"The most important thing is the failure to move forward, to modernize our nuclear arsenal," he stressed. "Our nuclear arsenal is a Cold War relic that is less and less valuable in the world that we see emerging. Its strategic utility is diminishing," he said.
Donnelly says neither friends nor adversaries will have the same respect for a conventional or mixed deterrent that they have for today's nuclear deterrent.
But other experts note that even with Tuesday's announcement, and the Strategic Arms Reduction Agreement that the U.S. and Russian presidents will sign this week, the United States will still have a large nuclear capability, and that it is modern enough to be a credible deterrent.
Daryl Kimball is the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association.
"The United States' nuclear arsenal, even at lower numbers, will remain extremely formidable. It is modern. Our arsenal is well-maintained, highly effective. This is a common sense approach to the post-post-Cold War situation," he said.
Kimball says the new policy will increase U.S. leverage in dealing with that states have nuclear weapons and spread the technology, like North Korea, and states that are pursuing nuclear weapons, like Iran, and will put more pressure on other countries to take a harder line against such states.
The new policy provides a detailed plan to fulfill President Barack Obama's desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy, and to fight their spread to terrorist groups and rogue states. After he and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague on Thursday, Mr. Obama will return to Washington to host a global summit on nuclear security next week.