Since the Cold War's end elite strategists have become increasingly divided over the question of nuclear weapons. A hard core of hawks in the Congress and military, the nuclear weapons laboratories, and academia have maintained that a large, continuously improved arsenal, and an aggressive “nuclear posture” remain necessary for the “security” of the United States: arms control treaties and diplomacy be damned. Meanwhile, a growing number of reformers has argued that nuclear weapons pose more of a problem than a solution for the maintenance of US hegemony. The solution, they claim, is for the US to lead an open-ended campaign of global arms control diplomacy, beginning with Russia, but extending to all nations. This exercise of soft power, they hope, will legitimate and facilitate the aggressive nonproliferation measures —including sanctions, and war— that they believe are ultimately necessary to prevent the emergence of new nuclear states, and the spread of fissile materials into the hands of “terrorists.” Like their hawkish counterparts, the chief concern among this new nuclearist school is to prevent developments that would inhibit the reach and continued expansion of US empire.
The 1990s was an era of failures and half-measures for US nuclear policy makers on all sides of this debate. While Bush I implemented a ban on full-scale nuclear testing (which continues to this day) and while the START I treaty proceeded to eliminate a significant portion of the rival superpower's vast nuclear overkill capacities, major transformations were deferred in favor of what the Clinton administration, under the leadership of defense secretary William Perry, called a “lead but hedge” strategy. The US would ostensibly “lead” in the overall de-emphasis of atomic weapons, hoping that this would trickle down and dissuade lesser nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. Contrarily, however, the US would also “hedge” by maintaining an unrivaled nuclear arsenal and strike capacity, to say nothing of its increasingly gross conventional superiority in arms.
More so, the Clinton administration bowed to the core demands of the US nuclear weapons establishment by fully funding a multi-billion dollar scheme called Stockpile Stewardship and Management, a highly euphemistic program that proclaimed to safeguard the aging stockpile, but that actually built a virtual nuclear weapons research, development and testing apparatus at the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons labs. In the words of the Western States Legal Foundation's executive director Jacqueline Cabasso, it was essentially an “anti-disarmament program.” The qualitative improvement of the US arsenal proceeded in spite of stern warnings from a minority of imperial strategists who warned that this would seriously undercut the long-term goal of nonproliferation. It would constrain the exercise of military force by opening the US to claims of hypocrisy in security matters. The 2003 invasion of Iraq represented the nadir of this confused and controversial imperial strategy.
Funding for nuclear weapons actually increased in the 1990s surpassing the Cold-War average. Even so, the US nuclear weapons complex sank into mismanagement, scandal, and a severe crisis involving the atrophy of both the facilities and institutional culture of the labs, both necessary to the nuclear enterprise. It has been a figurative meltdown, especially at Los Alamos Lab, the proverbial plutonium pit, or core, of the entire US nuclear establishment. Several high level commissions were chartered by the Department of Energy and Congress to address the crisis, all with the understanding that the continued possession of nuclear weapons and their fundamental role in military planning were not to change. These commissions, known variously as the Foster Panel and Chiles Commission (named for the men who chaired them) pushed hard to unleash the US weapons labs from the constraints imposed against aggressive development of new nuclear weapons and against testing by proposing reforms, and demanding ensured streams of funding and independence. Securing some of their demands, they ultimately failed to solve the underlying cause of the crisis facing the US nuclear weapons establishment. The scope of their reports fell short of questions pertaining to the geopolitical strategy of the US, and the role of nuclear weapons within it.
The United States nuclear weapons establishment has been torn between a contradiction in the needs of American empire. On the one hand, the empire has utilized nuclear weapons since the end of World War II to project overwhelming, unrivaled American power across the planet, securing for its titan corporations zones of exclusive exploitation, and safeguarding the consolidation of capitalist globalization. However, the contradiction built into nuclearized state power from the very beginning has been that the acquisition of just one nuclear weapon with an effective transcontinental delivery system, survivable and “secure” in the ways that US strategist mean when they talk about the “security” of their own missile topping fusion bombs, would provide a true deterrent force for lesser states against superpower aggression. Since the 1970s many “undeveloped” nations have acquired, in theory, the technical and bureaucratic capacity of produce a nuclear arsenal. Some, like Pakistan, have even gone nuclear. Since the fall of the USSR several more states have decided to proceed with building up their nuclear energy and weapons capacities as counter-forces against domination by the world's major powers, their own version of the “hedge” strategy.
Caught in this contradiction —the need to threaten other nations with its nuclear “deterrent,” but also to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, an eventuality ensured by its own possession of nuclear weapons— US strategist have scurried about in frustration to find a solution. About the only thing going for the US nuclear weapons establishment over the last two decades has been the demise of the anti-nuclear movement and the absence of any serious, mass-based opposition to atomic weapons and energy.
The eight long years of George W. Bush are widely seen as a wasted era even among the nuclear establishment's leaders. The administration's bellicose and unilateralist foreign policy, combined with the push to develop new, “more usable” weapons like the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and the Reliable Replacement Warhead, is credited by many foreign policy elites and arms control advocates as having exacerbated the empire's proliferation crisis without having even successfully delivered these new arms. Furthermore, the Bush years failed to produce a solution to the crisis facing the nuclear weapons complex. After a round of privatization which put 96% of the US nuclear weapons complex under for-profit contracts with a cartel of nine variously partnering corporations, and an ambitious plan to “transform” the entire complex into a meaner and more flexible machine, the weapons labs continued to slide, skills and knowledge atrophied, morale plummeted.
As if in preparation for the more methodical and tempered Obama administration, four elder Cold Warriors penned a now famous essay for the Wall Street Journal in January of 2007. In it, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn called boldly for global nuclear disarmament. Portraying themselves as non-partisan leaders of a major coalition, these four have articulated a new nuclear strategy for the United States, one that is heavy on disarmament rhetoric and chock full of practical, aggressive steps to prevent the spread of weapons technologies and fissile materials. It is a blueprint for the survival and expansion of a nuclear-armed US empire far into the future. Their message has not only found wide support among the foreign policy elite, it has also swiftly outflanked the entire field of disarmament and arms control NGOs, many of whom have fallen over themselves to praise the Wall Street Journal manifesto and to join the metastasizing campaign these four men are leading in the name of “a world free of nuclear weapons.”
Shultz and Kissinger, Perry and Nunn, two former secretaries of state, a former defense secretary, and ex-senator, all have unparalleled experience in fitting nuclear weapons into the wider military and diplomatic policies of the United States.
Kissinger launched his career as a realist strategist by writing an influential book in 1957, the main argument of which was that nuclear weapons should be de-emphasized in US military strategy to provide a more free hand in the full exercise of US conventional military, economic and political power.
Shultz, a former president of Bechtel corporation, the largest nuclear weapons and energy contractor in the world, was Reagan's secretary of state and thoroughly involved in nuclear policy making through the 1980s.
Sam Nunn chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee and authored a highly influential bill aimed at dismantling much of the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons and converting its fissile materials into commercial reactor fuel. Nunn is now chairman of the influential Nuclear Threat Initiative, a quasi-state agency NGO that works closely with the US on nonproliferation issues.
Perry, former secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, is a board member of the two for-profit corporations owned by the University of California and Bechtel which operate the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons labs. Most recently Perry chaired the Congressional Commission on America's Strategic Posture and co-chaired the Council on Foreign Relations' Task Force on US Nuclear Weapons Policy.
Both of these commissions released their final reports in May of this year, virtually coinciding with the release of the Obama administration's nuclear weapons budget. The two reports call for an extension of the “lead but hedge” strategy, albeit with a rhetorical and political emphasis on increasing the perception of US restraint and concrete steps toward disarmament. Perry and his fellow commissioners are unequivocal about the US keeping its nuclear arms well into the distant, imperceptible future, writing in the CFR report for example: “the geopolitical conditions that would permit the global elimination of nuclear weapons do not currently exist.” Obama's budget proposal concurs, more or less in numerical terms, funding work on nuclear warheads at the usual levels (about $6.4 billion).
A UN gathering to prepare for next year's review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty recently concluded in New York, and a discussion has begun to grow around the prospects of US Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an arms control regime that was formally rejected by conservative Republican leaders in 1999. Steps toward US ratification are being promoted by new nuclearist thinkers as a means of strengthening the US position going into the NPT Review Conference. The desired result of CTBT ratification would be to create the perception of US restraint, thus enabling it and other nuclear armed nations to push their nonproliferation agenda over the much more popularly supported agenda of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The NAM has also called for general measures to stem the further spread of nuclear weapons, but has foregrounded far-reaching, verifiable, and immediate steps toward nuclear disarmament by the US and Russia and the other major nuclear powers. The NAM has gone further, calling for a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East, a goal that immediately calls for cessation of nuclear cooperation with Israel and non-transfer of nuclear weapons to Israel.
Many of the foreign policy elite, especially those who feel most adamantly that the Bush years were wasted and that they actually imperiled the imperial project, see many of these recent developments in the US as an immense possibility to turn the corner and implement a smart, far-reaching US nuclear strategy, one complimentary to the extension of US hegemony. While they're still being digested by politicians, military leaders, and weaponeers, it does appear that an emerging new majority is coalescing around what can only be described as a policy of anti-nuclear imperialism.
Anti-nuclear imperialism is a possible solution to the core contradiction of empire in the nuclear age: the need to maintain and threaten use of nuclear weapons (ultimate power), but the simultaneous and opposite need to prevent rivals from attaining parity, and lesser states from acquiring this form of power themselves, and finally to prevent the possibility of nuclear attack by a non-state agent, a terrifying asymmetrical threat. Anti-nuclear imperialism begins with the use of strong, moralizing disarmament rhetoric by leaders of the imperial power. Based on this, the imperial state then must take steps to create at least the perception among as many states as possible that it is restraining its own nuclear arsenal and working with the other great powers to dismantle weapons systems, all ostensibly moving toward disarmament. This in turn is meant to facilitate and legitimate any and all means to prevent most other states from acquiring nuclear weapons or even the capability to produce nuclear weapons. By de-emphasizing nuclear arms, these strategists hope to actually boost the overall military superiority of the US, far above and beyond its current powers, which ironically have become constrained in some ways by its continuing possession of these weapons in the post-Cold War era. The end goal is to maintain a balance of power under US hegemony and to tighten the ring of control around nuclear technologies and fissile materials.
This strategy is now in full effect against Iran. Dennis Ross, the Obama administration's “special adviser” for the Persian Gulf, has described the current posture toward Iran as “engagement with pressure,” where by US diplomatic entreaties are designed entirely to strengthen the hand of the US for future economic sanctions and eventual military action. At the center of Washington and Teran's disagreement is the geopolitical question of the region's immense petroleum reserves, who will control them, who will profit from them. Iran's steady acquisition of an independent uranium enrichment infrastructure with other developments such as the refinement of long range ballistic missiles has slowly turned the Islamic Republic into a virtual nuclear weapons state. “Engagement with pressure” has one simple addmitted goal. According to Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, two former national security council staffers who have spoken to Ross and other Obama administration officials at length about their Iran strategy the White House is hoping to legitimate aggressive military actions to maintain the nuclear status quo. As Ross explained to them recently: “if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past “diplomacy” would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.”
Sam Nunn has laid these plans out clearly in various speeches, and through the George W. Bush years his NTI organization incubated the ideology and practice of anti-nuclear imperialism. The election of Obama portends the adoption of anti-nuclear imperialism as the official state policy. Nuclear disarmament, which Nunn identifies as a “distant mountaintop,” is the rhetorical goal that must be committed to by US leaders if intrusive and ultimately belligerent actions are to be justified under the pre-text of thwarting “nuclear threats” to “civilization.” The concrete and immediate steps that receive the bulk of attention and resources under this strategy will involve aggressive actions to prevent any game changing developments such as the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran which could challenge US and European control over the indispensable hydrocarbon reserves of the Persian Gulf region, to say nothing of the ongoing status quo in Palestine where a nuclear armed Israel, backed by the US, and with the complicity of most Arab monarchies, ignores the majority of world opinion with indifference.
William Perry, in his Chairman's Preface to the freshly printed Congressional Commission on America's Strategic Posture writes that;
“...the ultimate goal of global nuclear elimination would require a fundamental change in geopolitics. Indeed, if the vision of nuclear elimination is though of as the “top of the mountain,” it is clear that it cannot be seen at this time. But I believe that we should be heading up the mountain to a “base camp” that would be safer than where we are today. I also believe that getting the international political support necessary to move to this base cap will be greatly facilitated if the United States is seen as working for the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons [....] The base camp concept serves as an organizing principle for my own thinking about our strategic posture, since it allows the United States to both lead and hedge.”
If history is any guide, the “base camp” is the actual goal to be achieved by pursuing an anti-nuclear imperialist strategy, while the “distant mountaintop” might forever remain a perpetually receding dream. Steeling themselves for the hike to this base camp, Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn gathered with President Obama at the White House on May 19 where Obama aptly vouched their trusted responsibility saying “I don't think anybody would accuse these four gentlemen of being dreamers.” Obama praised them as “hard-headed, tough defenders of American interests and American security.” and credited them with helping to “inspire the policies” of his administration with respect to nuclear weapons. The men adjourned following an affirmation of elite unity from Schultz on the White House lawn. Schultz told the press, “we think the effort is of such and nature and such an importance that it kind of rises above what ought to be partisan in nature. There's plenty to argue about and plenty to study and work on, but let's do it on the merits of the subject, on a non-partisan basis.” After two decades of stumbling against a seemingly insurmountable contradiction in American empire, Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, Nunn, Obama, and many more seem to believe that they are forging a new majority around a new nuclear strategy. That they have been able to neutralize and even enjoin the support of many antinuclear organizations in this clever imperial strategy is all more reason they might succeed.
Only time through struggle will tell.