Hillary Nuclear Policy: A Time of Change, Dither or Sameness?


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(First published on the IPCS web site on 02 Nov 2016, as a part of their Impact Series. may be accessed at: http://www.ipcs.org/article/us-south-asia/hillarys-nuclear-policy-a-time-of-change-dithering-or-sameness-5163.html)

An Inexpedient Second

The last time that a Democrat President of the USA was elected to office after two terms of a Democratic Presidency was 180 years ago. A certain Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in 1836. Coincidentally he was a former Secretary of State. The occurrence is unique in an unflattering way for a variety of reasons which has little to do with the candidate’s merits but more with ballotter’s disposition. Significant of these fancies are: exaction for change, anti-incumbency, voter fatigue, absence of choice and the resigned philosophical knowledge that this would be a one-off, destined to enter office as a ‘lame-duck.’

In the current Presidential race, two candidates have been thrust on the electorate who under circumstances of choice would have been spurned. Donald Trump comes with dangerous impetuousness while Hillary carries a baggage of alleged chicanery and unimaginativeness. However reality and opinion polls suggests that Hillary would enter the Oval office as America’s 45th President (this assumption is central to the narrative).

The 1837 inauguration of Van Buren proved less of a celebration and more of banality. His inaugural address took melancholy note of it: “In receiving from the people the sacred trust twice confided to my illustrious predecessor… I know that I cannot expect to perform the task with equal ability and success. But, I may hope that somewhat of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend upon my path.” … and Van Buren pledged to “tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson.” Needless to state that Buren lasted just one term, his Presidency was troubled, weak and had little success to legate; collapse of the economy, hostility to Native Americans and compromises in securing the frontiers with Canada and Mexico. On leaving office he was re-baptized ‘Martin Van Ruin’. Clearly if history is to prevail and Hillary elected, then ‘Continuity’ is her only deliverance.

Survival of Obama’s Nuclear Policy

In addition to his ‘Global Zero’ initiative, one of the most significant promises Obama made in his, now less-than-lustrous, 2009 Prague speech was to “put an end to Cold War thinking” by reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy. The Cold War had ended decades earlier and while the U.S. nuclear arsenal had decreased, little else had changed in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. As the Commander-in-Chief he could have made meaningful changes without the agreement of Russia or Congress. He did not. Changing the deeply entrenched status quo and overcoming inertia in the U.S. security establishment, however, demanded more than a vision; it required statesmanship, profoundly lacking, it would now seem. In some areas his administration has made nuclear matters worse. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, considered “making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.” However, it did not take this step. Instead, U.S. policy still allows the United States to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis. This suggests that nuclear weapons have legitimate uses in war fighting. Add to this, Obama announced a $1 trillion plan to rebuild and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Whatever became of the resolve to bemoan the Cold War nuclear paradigm? With such a distracted policy inheritance, Hillary’s by now well acknowledged dawdling on nuclear matters is more than likely to return to Cold War beliefs.

The No-First-Use Non Starter

Obama, towards the last few months of his term in office, toyed with the idea of unilaterally declaring a No-First-Use (NFU) nuclear weapons policy to impel a first step towards goals of Global Zero. It would have been a landmark change in the U.S. nuclear posture. America’s overwhelming conventional weapon superiority provided the logic for such a step and the probable dividend was that the other nuclear weapon states would follow suit. This, notwithstanding, protests from allies who believe that “extended first use deterrence” works, despite convincing arguments of the “first-use-illusion” (after all, first-use not only suggests a break down in deterrence but also brings with it an assurance of retaliation). To declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter and if necessary only respond to the use of nuclear weapons by other countries; would not only conform to the Nuclear Posture Review of 2010, but would also provide incentive for Hillary to veer away from Cold War nuclear theology and set the NFU agenda in order to give fresh meaning to the idea of Continuity. Nevertheless, the question is really not of rationality but of whether the Hillary administration will have the resolve to take on a Republican dominated Congress? Clearly if Cold War thinking were to prevail, then such a transformatory change in posture is destined to collapse.


Test Ban and START

Seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution affirming a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons was Obama’s scheme to enshrine the United States’ pledge not to test without having to seek the Senate’s unlikely ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Then again, this runs contrary to the one trillion Dollar upgrade of the nuclear arsenal. Could the state really contemplate warhead and vector enhancements without testing was the conundrum? Hillary will have to juggle with this very complex issue of making large investments without a corresponding assurance of reliability; and then will the nuclear establishment give her the lee way to make such compromises? Time will of course tell, but, the prospect of such an event transpiring is stacked against her.

The Obama administration had noted that offering Russia a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty’s limits on deployed nuclear weapons (even though those limits don’t expire until 2021) would pave the way for his successor to not let the treaty lapse. Hillary, undoubtedly would have recognised this and it is reasonable that she will take steps to give legitimacy to the proposition provided Russia ‘plays ball’.

Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSOW)

The development of a new LRSOW nuclear cruise missile may have held logic for a limited nuclear strike but it also suggests a warped rationality that can only push the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. In the circumstance of it being used against a nuclear weapon state, then, the risk of retaliation and a nuclear exchange spinning out of control is very real. It is a capability Obama doesn’t believe the United States needs and by any wisdom, worthy of cancellation. It would also fulfil his campaign promise to take U.S. land-based missile off hair-trigger alert. Discarding the option of launching weapons-on-warning was his way of rejecting the very Cold War thinking he was calling the world to castoff. It will remain an awkward irony that Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his vision of a world without nuclear weapons if he is unable to pass down such a legacy to his successor. Yet robust opposition to such a dramatic remodelling of nuclear doctrine can, with some certainty, be expected to come from the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex.

U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

There are two issues related to America’s nuclear arsenal that the establishment has never really attempted to resolve, these are: Firstly, why the Pentagon is embarking upon a trillion-dollar programme to modernize the Triad? Is the program necessary (remember Hillary, in Jan 2016, had already dismissed the expenditure as meaningless)? And secondly, how do advances in non-nuclear weaponry affect theories of nuclear deterrence devised during the 1950s and 1960s? Does the logic of those early theories still hold, particularly in the light of overwhelming conventional and technological superiority? And will the Hillary Administration be resolute enough to put ‘actions where their mouth is’ and review the trillion-dollar proposed outlay in addition to challenging the ‘Word’ of Washington’s nuclear Ayatollahs? The matter seems dubious; given current relationship with Russia and China’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal. This will imply more of Cold War rationality rather than less.

The Future of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal

On successful conclusion of the Indo-US civil Nuclear Deal on 10 October 2008, the late     K. Subramanian, one of the early proponents of India’s independent nuclear deterrent and an architect of her nuclear doctrine, argued that the convergence of strategic interests between the two nations made such a remarkable agreement a reality, overcoming decades-long US stand on non-proliferation; what he did not mention was, it also put an end to an equally long antagonism between the two establishments. While much of the world’s approach to India in the past had been to limit its access to nuclear technology, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratories (a leading institution for nuclear weapons design during the Cold War) in a Senate hearing in 2008 put the matter in perspective. He suggested that it may well be that today we (the U.S.) limit ourselves by not having access to India’s nuclear technology developing such entrée should help to advice… efforts with India because India’s nuclear program was developed mostly indigenously, the country used unique techniques that other countries can learn from. Given this technical standpoint and not for a moment losing sight of the commercial prospects, the element of mutuality must come as no surprise and neither must the contract for 6 Westinghouse AP 1000 nuclear reactors due to be inked in June 2017.

While the full potential of the civil nuclear deal is yet to be realised, there can be no two opinions on changes in bilateral strategic orientation since the deal was struck. The extent to which transformation has occurred may be judged by several episodes in the relationship which include: deletion of many high technology sanctions imposed on India since 1974. Enhancing nuclear power generation through imported uranium and purchase of new reactors is an example; while convergence of strategic perspectives holds great promise for the future whether it be measures to bring about strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific or whole hearted support to India’s admission into the UN Security Council as a permanent member and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a steps to buttress stability in global security and nuclear politics and commerce. The U.S. has become India’s largest trading partner in goods and services and the two sides have set an ambitious goal of half a trillion dollars for future trade; cooperation on counter-terrorism, information-sharing and intelligence-partnership have expanded rapidly in recent years. In military cooperation the America has become one of India’s major suppliers of arms, and the two sides have on the table agreements that were improbable a few years ago such as the Logistic Memorandum of Understanding or entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime or even rejecting the idea of mediating between India and Pakistan, especially on the Kashmir question. All these advances are direct dividends of the nuclear deal for it provided the strategic ambience that facilitated partnership.

About the UNSC and NSG membership, Hillary has made it amply clear that her backing for India’s full membership is comprehensive. It includes the three Nuclear/ Chemical & Biological Weapon export control regimes; the NSG, Wassernaar Arrangement (an export control regime for conventional arms and dual-use Goods and Technologies) and the Australia Group.

Continuity and a Retreat to Cold War Thinking-A Forecast

Much like the hapless Buren, the 45th Presidency is more than likely to face an unsympathetic Congress, a hostile Pentagon and the prospect of a near certain ‘lame duck’ term. The only virtue that history may remember Hillary for is that she stayed-the-course laid by her predecessor. And yet even here it cannot be easy, for the geopolitical script has changed. There is, today, a far more assertive Russia than was in the first decade and a more forceful China set on rewriting the rule book. In the nuclear field the early flirtation with ending Cold War thinking is a pipe-dream. So for Hillary, Continuity may prove an arduous abstraction that could boomerang with more recoil than forward momentum. Perhaps her only redemption may come from building an entente cordiale with India as a balancing power.

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