Nuclear Posture Review To Revamp U.S. Approach

Guests:

Ted Koppel, NPR senior news analyst; former anchor, ABC News Nightline
Sharon Squassoni, senior associate, Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Tom Donnelly, resident fellow and director, Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research

The Obama administration has unveiled the plan to revamp the United States' approach to nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Posture Review took a year to draft, and in what's being presented as a break from the past, the guidelines pledge that the U.S. will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

A year ago, on a visit to Prague, President Obama pledged to work for a world without nuclear weapons, a goal that was cited by the Nobel Committee when it awarded him the Peace Prize a few months later.

This week, two significant steps on nuclear weapons. Today, in Prague again, President Obama met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to sign a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which will cut arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons by almost a third.

And earlier this week, the administration unveiled a new policy, which lays out the circumstances under which the U.S. might use nuclear weapons. It's called the NPR, the Nuclear Posture Review, and in a break with the past these new guidelines declare the U.S. will not use or threaten to use nukes against any country that's in conformity with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Later in the hour, a closer look at WikiLeaks, the group that calls itself the people's intelligence agency. They released the controversial Apache gunship video this week.

But first, if you have questions about the new START treaty or about the new guidelines for the use of nuclear weapons, our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel joins us now today from NPR's bureau in San Francisco. Ted, always good to have you with us.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you very much. Even in hearing you talk about the early stages of this, Neal, I'm sort of having flashbacks to 35 years ago and drowning in a sea of acronyms, the SALT, the START, the ICBMs, the MRVs. I hope we can stay clear of those today.

CONAN: Well, but 20 years after the end of the Cold War, it's all too easy to overlook the fact that this doomsday machinery, this legacy, continues to exist.

KOPPEL: Well, it continues to exist, and in its own way it continues to work. I mean, one of those acronyms was particularly appropriate. That was the mutually assured destruction acronym, which kept the United States and the Soviet Union in a balance of terror with one another on the assumption that even if one side were to launch a surprise nuclear attack against the other, the recipient of that attack, the victim of that attack, would still have sufficient weaponry left, sufficient nuclear launch capabilities to inflict such devastating losses on the other side that it served to keep everything quite literally in a balance of terror.

But of course today we live in a largely different world, where the fear now is not so much that the nuclear weapons will be delivered by an SS-18 but rather by Federal Express or somebody bringing it in a backpack.

CONAN: And indeed, we're talking about strategic weapons. These are the long-range systems that are on ballistic missile submarines or in silos in North Dakota or Novosibirsk, or I guess used to be on bombers. I don't think either side actually uses long-range bombers for nuclear weapons anymore.

But nevertheless, that doesn't cover tens of thousands of other short-range nuclear weapons, so-called tactical ones.

KOPPEL: Exactly, and you know, I saw an interesting you probably read the same piece in the New York Times this morning. A professor from the Naval War College who said, you know, you don't like to think about it this way, but before nuclear weapons existed in the 20th century, quite literally wars killed tens of millions of people.

The existence of the nuclear weapons has, in a bizarre way, kept the kill ratio down. Even though we've had plenty of wars, they have not been the sort of massive destruction wars that we knew, you know, prior to the 1950s.

CONAN: There are some pretty ugly examples of situations that I'm sure people come to mind, in Rwanda and Cambodia and other places where things really did get out of control. Nevertheless, the kind of mass conflagration you're talking about, the First and Second World Wars, did not happen again.

KOPPEL: Yeah, no, you're absolutely right. I mean, but in both cases, those were internally those were internally generated genocides that began quite literally from one tribe in Rwanda against the other, and in Cambodia, as we all remember, against any intellectuals or perceived intellectuals or those with any connection to the West. But you're absolutely right.

CONAN: People who even wore glasses. For more perspectives on the treaty and the new NPR, I'm joined here in Studio 3A by Sharon Squassoni. She is a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Nice to have you with us.

Ms. SHARON SQUASSONI: (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Actually, I've now joined the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where I direct...

CONAN: I apologize.

Ms. SQUASSONI: That's fine where I direct the Proliferation Prevention Program.

CONAN: And Tom Donnelly is with us, and I hope he's still director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. TOM DONNELLY (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research): Well, I am. I used to work at the SIS, but I came to AEI a couple years ago.

CONAN: And he's with us on a studio from AEI. And first, Sharon, is this what's different with this new START treaty? What changes?

Ms. SQUASSONI: This new START treaty was thought of as an interim agreement. The original START treaty expired at the end of December, 2009, and although the Bush administration had negotiated a strategic arms control treaty, there were no verification measures in that treaty, which we call the Moscow Treaty.

So it was very important to get a new START treaty that had verification measures, that brought down the levels even a little more, and this treaty represents I guess a reduction in 30 percent of the warheads.

CONAN: But I've read that given the aging parts of the Soviet, the old Soviet system, this is nothing the Soviets, the Russians wouldnt have had to do anyway.

Ms. SQUASSONI: Exactly, and this should've been probably a little easier than it actually was, although I think we're all glad, or most of us are glad, that this treaty was signed today.

CONAN: Tom Donnelly, what's different?

Mr. DONNELLY: Not enough, unfortunately. Neal, you used the phrase both sides (clears throat) - pardon me - in talking to Ted Koppel, and I think that sort of underlines the fact, at least to me, that this is a very backward-looking treaty in the sense that it reprises the old bilateral world, bipolar world, that we used to live in through the years of the Cold War, whereas the world we live in today and the world of the future is a more complex, probably less stable and with an increasing number of nuclear powers much different balance of terror, if indeed there still exists a balance of terror.

CONAN: Yet at President Obama said, and I think it's accurate, 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia - that's it.

Mr. DONNELLY: Well, it doesn't take too many nuclear weapons to make a mess. So the numbers are important but not as important as who has what and what the geopolitical effects of those arsenals are.

Compared to the giant stockpiles that both the United States and the Soviet Union had during the Cold War, these recent reductions may be pretty modest, but compared to the old arsenals, we've come down a long way. And the question is, as we reduce, are there others not just terrorists but other states who think their interests are served by having even pretty small nuclear arsenals, and certainly the evidence of proliferation over the last decade or so pretty strongly suggests that other people see utility in nuclear weapons, even if we don't.

KOPPEL: Neal, if I could just jump in for a moment to sort of underline something that Tom Donnelly is saying - if you look at India and Pakistan, for example, you're looking at two nations that probably each has about 70 nuclear warheads. The danger of a nuclear war in that part of the world is probably greater at this time than it is anywhere else in the world, and believe me, those 70 nuclear warheads on either side could create a human tragedy the likes of which we've never seen.

CONAN: And as we look ahead, Sharon Squassoni, to this treaty we're going to talk about the NPR, the Nuclear Posture Review, and the ways the United States may has decided it may use or not use these weapons in the future, and the changes and what matters there. But as you look at this treaty in itself, isn't it a good idea? The last START treaty expired in December. Isn't it a good thing just to have another treaty?

Ms. SQUASSONI: It's necessary but not sufficient, and here I would agree with Tom. More needs to be done, and actually that Nuclear Posture Review, or the NPR, as we call it in the arms-control community, talks about reducing, about next steps with Russia, and a key area will be reduction of tactical nuclear weapons.

We want this very much. The Russians have a lot of tactical nuclear weapons. So I would say this treaty is a good start. I would say in terms of reducing the nuclear weapons threat, it does less than it does for politics and non-proliferation, and by that I mean that it was a critical part of resetting the U.S. relationship with Russia, which was at an all-time low, and it was critical as a demonstration of the Obama administration's, and the Medvedev administration's, commitment to disarmament, which is key to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and getting what we want there.

CONAN: Sharon Squassoni, Tom Donnelly and Ted Koppel are with us. We're talking about the new START treaty and the new NPR yeah, we'll go back and explain them all again. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. John's on the line from is this Coney, Wyoming?

JOHN (Caller): Cody, C-O-D-Y.

CONAN: Cody, okay, go ahead.

JOHN: Well, I was a missile officer during the '60s and - in a silo, and they have silos in Wyoming, Montana, parts of Nebraska. I always felt that there were people with good enough sense that we would have never launched a missile at all. And my question is: What security measures are they going to take going forward where bad guys aren't going to get a hold of a nuclear dirty bomb and set it off in downtown Wyoming or whatever? What security measures are they going to take when somebody like North Korea says I'm going to do whatever I want and this treaty doesn't mean anything to me?

CONAN: Well, that gets to the NPR, the Nuclear Posture Review, and we're going to get to that in just a second. But Ted, in the few seconds we have left before the break, John is talking about the nightmare scenario that's much more likely, sadly, than the use of any of these strategic weapons.

KOPPEL: No, I think John's absolutely right, although I'd love to have a conversation with him over a beer sometime to figure out what he would've done if that order had come down to launch and he's sitting there with that key.

JOHN: Well, I always felt that there was enough good sense in the upper command - we wouldn't have done it.

KOPPEL: Okay, but I mean the point John makes, the larger point, is the one I was trying to make before when I said if - you know, the bomb we have to worry about now is the one that comes in somebody's backpack or a suitcase or is even sent by UPS or Federal Express.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call, and we appreciate the time you spent down at the bottom of that silo, hoping that nothing ever happened.

JOHN: Good luck to us.

CONAN: Thank you, we need it. We're talking about the new nuclear arms treaty the U.S. and Russia signed today, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In Prague today, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a major nuclear arms control agreement. We're talking about what that new treaty could mean and about a new policy adopted by the Obama administration earlier this week about the ways in which nuclear weapons could and could not be used.

Will this get us closer to the president's stated goal of a world without nuclear weapons? And what's it going to mean in terms of deterring places like North Korea and Iran? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Still with us from the NPR bureau in San Francisco is NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel. Also with us today, Sharon Squassoni, senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies I think I got that right this time. Tom Donnelly is also with us, a resident fellow and director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He's with us from AEI, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And the nuclear review, Tom Donnelly, what's fundamentally changed here?

Mr. DONNELLY: Well, I think the big headline is that we're not going to modernize our arsenal. And I think, actually that's, at least to me, the most significant and most worrisome development of the advance of this week. And next, there's going to be a nuclear summit in Washington.

I think Defense Secretary Gates is on record, and I think he sort of speaks for the majority of defense folks when he said that reducing the arsenal to these levels as specified in the treaty was acceptable if we could only update the remaining weapons that we have and ensure by testing that they were safe and reliable.

So, we've gone down to the numbers in the treaty, and I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, but the legacy Cold War arsenal that we have is less and less useful, flexible or valuable in this world that we see coming. And so, the posture review is really kind of the therefore clause of the overall policy. And so far, it looks like the administration is not going to do anything serious on that front, and I think that's really going to be a problem.

CONAN: Sharon Squassoni, the president's political base would've found it difficult to authorize a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Ms. SQUASSONI: Exactly. I think this posture review is quite careful to say we are going to maintain our nuclear arsenal. We're going to do all the things we need to do, life-extension programs, but we're not going to build new warheads that have new missions or new capabilities. And I think that shouldn't be a surprise at all. This was clearly President Obama's view going in.

On the other hand, it does contain quite a bit of money for the nuclear weapons complex, and that may make some of his more-liberal supporters not very happy because right now, we spend about $54 billion a year on our nuclear weapons and what we call nuclear security, all told.

CONAN: And Ted Koppel, there are going to be others within the president's base unhappy that the policy doesn't simply state that the only possible use for nuclear weapons is to deter other nuclear weapon state, and that the United States would never use them first.

KOPPEL: Well, our experts will correct me if for some reason I misstate anything. It's my recollection that we have largely had that as a policy. We would we would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. Where I think this new policy alters that a little bit is that it says we would not even use nuclear weapons in the event that we were attacked with weapons of mass destruction, like biological weapons or chemical weapons.

CONAN: I think the phrase we're missing here is strategic ambiguity, and Tom Donnelly, if I'm correct, the previous statements on this first use were ambiguous.

Mr. DONNELLY: Yes, but sort of with an edge to them, if you will. It was certainly the case at the height of the Cold War when the conventional balance in Europe was thought to be heavily in favor of the Soviets, that we did have a first use policy, essentially.

It's also worth remembering, not just as a hypothetical but as and I'm sure Ted Koppel will remember this in 1991, just prior to the first Gulf War, there was a famous meeting between Secretary of State James Baker and Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister, which...

KOPPEL: In Geneva. I remember it well, yeah.

Mr. DONNELLY: Right, at which basically, James Baker said if you use chemical or biological warfare weapons against our forces, we'll respond in any way we see fit, and the American people...

CONAN: I think the phrase was duck and cover.

Mr. DONNELLY: He also said the American people will demand revenge. It was a very thinly veiled nuclear threat. Now, whether the Bush administration would, in fact, have done that and what exactly effect that had on the Iraqis, people will be arguing over through their memoirs and political science journals for decades to come. But this has been a pretty traditional tool of American strategy that certainly and it's worth saying that there are many asterisks and caveats in everything the president has said and in the reviews.

But it does seem to take that past option somewhat, if not entirely, off the table.

CONAN: Yeah, let's go to Morty(ph), and Morty's on the line with us from Portland, Oregon.

MORTY (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking this call. I've got a comment and a question. It appears to me that the proliferation of nuclear material and technology has led to a situation that if someone were to attack us with a nuclear weapon, they may not know the origin of the nuclear weapons (unintelligible).

The question is: Doesn't that encourage some terrorist-sponsoring states and terrorists to use nuclear weapons on us because they think that we will not know where they are coming from? And the second question is: What is the nuclear posture that you talk about in terms of deterring this type of an attack on us?

CONAN: Well, Sharon Squassoni, what does it say?

Ms. SQUASSONI: Well, this is kind of a complicated topic, but the U.S. and others have been engaged in research on what we call nuclear forensics. I think we're pretty certain that after an explosion, we might be able to actually detect where the material came from.

But I think you have to go back to ask the question: What purpose is served, or what objectives would a terrorist organization have in, you know, exploding a nuclear device on U.S. soil or against U.S. forces somewhere and not claiming attribution?

I mean, the problem I think that you're getting at is, you know, how do you deter a terrorist? And the answer is, it's very difficult. So what you really need to do is make it very, very difficult for terrorists ever to get their hands on either nuclear weapons, nuclear material or radioactive material. And that is the subject of the Nuclear Security Summit that's going to be happening in Washington next week.

CONAN: Just down the street here in Washington. Thank you for the call, Morty. Tom Donnelly, there is an exception on the use the United States says it will never use nuclear weapons against a country that is in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but then also says, well, and there's a special exception for you, Iran and North Korea.

Mr. DONNELLY: Well, that kind of undercuts the, you know, the guarantees, the negative assurance as the administration is calling it. It's also worth recalling that in 1991, Iraq was also a signatory to the NPT, and it wasn't until after the war that they were formally found to be in violation of it.

So, look, it is in some ways reassuring that there are these caveats and exceptions, but that also suggests that maybe this wasn't a great declaratory policy to have in the first place. You know, if you're not North Korea or Iran, but you're some other nuclear state, and you can't tell, you know, whether you're on the hit list or not, possibly that makes your decision-making process more opaque. But the point of the United States security guarantees and the point of our nuclear deterrent is to make it as clear and as unambiguous as possible.

CONAN: Let's get Paul(ph) on the line, Paul calling from Moab in Utah.

PAUL: Hi, I'd like to know if what and if this policy has any effect on the relationship we have with Israel concerning their nuclear weapons and our no-ask-no-tell policy as to how many they have and if that's even addressed at all in this policy or the upcoming one that's next week.

CONAN: It seems to be addressed in the very careful formulation of states in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel would be in compliance, since it's not a signatory to it, and therefore wait a minute. Sharon, you're shaking your head.

Ms. SQUASSONI: It is not a member of the NPT, so it lies - you know, this formulation talks about non-nuclear weapon states in good standing with the NPT. Israel is not that nor is India, nor is Pakistan, nor is North Korea. And there could be countries - and nor is Iran for that matter, although it signed the NPT, it's not in good standing.

So I don't think that this NPR changes anything towards our policies toward Israel. But it does highlight the fact that we place great stock in not just membership with the NPT but compliance and that we're going to reward in a certain way those countries that play by the rules.

CONAN: We reward Israel plenty, and they don't play by the rules.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SQUASSONI: That's a huge political question.

CONAN: Tom?

Mr. DONNELLY: Neal, if I could just quick...

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. DONNELLY: Part of the purpose of both the treaty and the nuclear policy review is to be an exemplar to encourage others toward non-proliferation. All the cases that we've just mentioned are cases of people who think that their security lies in the possession of their own nuclear deterrent or nuclear weapons and the Non-Proliferation Treaty doesn't seem to suit their needs and the number of quest - countries on that list who take exemption is growing, and even those that are signatory countries are both expanding and modernizing their arsenals.

So the strategic utility, as other people see them, of nuclear weapons is increasing while we're trying to convince the world of exactly the opposite and setting an example by constraining ourselves.

CONAN: Ted, do you see this, the Non-Proliferation Treaty - clearly, President Obama places great stock in it and tries to strengthen it, but as Tom Donnelly points out, the number of non-compliant state seems to be growing.

KOPPEL: No. Tom is exactly right. And I would mention one other name that deserves to be fayed in to this conversation and that's the name A.Q. Khan. A.Q. Khan is the - believed to be the father of the nuclear - of Pakistan's nuclear bomb and he is also believed to have been responsible for the transmission of nuclear technology to a number of other countries around the world, including the North Koreans, including Libya at one point, including the Syrians.

The - you know, the problem with nuclear technology is no matter what you do via treaty, the knowledge of how to create nuclear devices, that's always been the unsolvable issue here. The knowledge of how to create a nuclear device cannot ever be eradicated again. And whether it's the scientist who is willing to pass that information on and where the component parts can be acquired, nuclear weapons are always a possibility.

CONAN: We're talking about the Nuclear Posture Review and the new START treaty. Our guests, Ted Koppel, NPR senior news analyst, Sharon Squassoni at the -director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Tom Donnelly, resident fellow and director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And an email question from Marilyn(ph). Is there any chance that Congress will not ratify, and if they do not, what happens next?

And, well, it's a treaty, that means a two-thirds majority of the United States Senate. Ted Koppel, have you been looking at the calculations yet?

KOPPEL: I haven't. But it's more than just - it's 60 - it requires 67 votes, I believe, in the Senate. And I would flip the question right over to Tom Donnelly because I think if - there may be as much opposition on the left flank of the Democratic Party as there will be on the right flank of the Republican Party. Tom, what do you think?

Mr. DONNELLY: I can't actually speak for the Democratic left. But, for example, Senator Jon Kyl, who is both a sort of solid conservative and sort of the dean of nuclear issues amongst Republicans in the Senate, is actually taking a pretty positive attitude toward things. I do think that there needs to - that in the minds of senators, and particularly informed Republican senators, there is a link between the START treaty, nuclear modernization and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

So I think the Senate is favorably disposed, and certainly people like Senator Kyl or - sort of think that the outcome could have been worse, just to put it in stark terms, but they also want to see a serious commitment to revamping and modernizing the nuclear weapons arsenal and they're nervous that this is a first step toward a testing treaty. And so I think, if you will, just looking at the crass politics of it, the price of ratification probably includes some concessions on both the modernization and in testing front.

CONAN: Sharon Squassoni, let me ask you another - about another acronym we have not used today, and good for us that we didn't get to it till late, SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative. This is, of course, ballistic missile defense. There was a theory the Russians really wanted this to be included as part of this new agreement. The United States refused to do that. It is mentioned, I gather, in a preamble, but otherwise not covered in this treaty.

Ms. SQUASSONI: It isn't. And I think that is - will be one of its key selling features to conservatives on the Hill. I don't see this treaty as being very controversial. What I do see in the Nuclear Posture Review is an attempt to provide a balanced document. There's a lot in there about continued extended deterrence, the continued strategic triad putting more money into the nuclear weapons complex, that I believe have a domestic audience, and that is the Hill, which is, these are some of things that you want. We would like ratification, consent to ratification on START Treaty and CTBT. I agree with Tom - sorry -Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. I agree with Tom...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you for that.

Ms. SQUASSONI: ...that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will be more controversial than the START Treaty. But I think we can expect the START Treaty to go through.

CONAN: And, Ted, we just have a few seconds, but passage these days not guaranteed in the Duma, the Russian parliament.

KOPPEL: Yeah. Well, that's true. I was just going to make one other point, Neal, if you'll forgive me, that is not directly response to your question. We are talking about a long, long time before we ever see a world that is nuclear free, if indeed - and indeed, the president himself said, not only does he not expect to see it during his term in office, he may not even see it in his own lifetime.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, as always, thanks very much, our NPR senior news analyst joining us from our bureau in San Francisco. Our thanks as well to Sharon Squassoni of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, with us here in Studio 3A, and Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, with us from a studio there at AEI.

Coming up next, we'll talk about WikiLeaks. The whistle-blowing Web site released a video this week of American soldiers killing people in Iraq in 2007. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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