(Editor’s Note: This is part of a strategic dialogue on U.S. nuclear policy. Please also see Russ Wellen’s Abdicating U.S. Nonproliferation Leadership and his response to this piece.)

The Obama administration is likely to continue a policy that we call “anti-nuclear nuclearism.” Anti-nuclear nuclearism is a foreign and military policy that relies upon overwhelming U.S. power, including the nuclear arsenal, but makes rhetorical and even some substantive commitments to disarmament, however vaguely defined. Anti-nuclear nuclearism thrives as a school of thought in several think tanks that have long influenced foreign policy choices related to global nuclear forces. Even the national nuclear weapons development labs in New Mexico and California have been avid supporters and crafters of of it.

As a policy, anti-nuclear nuclearism is designed to ensure U.S. nuclear and military dominance by rhetorically calling for what has long been derided as a naïve ideal: global nuclear disarmament. Unlike past forms of nuclearism, it de-emphasizes the offensive nature of the U.S. arsenal. Instead of promoting the U.S. stockpile as a strategic deterrence or umbrella for U.S. and allied forces, it prioritizes an aggressive diplomatic and military campaign of nonproliferation. Nonproliferation efforts are aimed entirely at other states, especially non-nuclear nations with suspected weapons programs, or states that can be coerced and attacked under the pretense that they possess nuclear weapons or a development program (e.g. Iraq in 2003).

Effectively pursuing this kind of belligerent nonproliferation regime requires half-steps toward cutting the U.S. arsenal further, and at least rhetorically recommitting the United States to international treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It requires a fig leaf that the United States isn’t developing new nuclear weapons, and that it is slowly disarming and de-emphasizing its nuclear arsenal. By these means the United States has tried to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, even though it has designed and built newly modified weapons with qualitatively new capacities over the last decade and a half. Meanwhile, U.S. leaders have allowed for and even promoted a mass proliferation of nuclear energy and material, albeit under the firm control of the nuclear weapons states, with the United States at the top of this pile.

Many disarmament proponents were elated last year when four extremely prominent cold warriors — George P. Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn — announced in a series of op-eds their commitment to “a world free of nuclear weapons.” Strange bedfellows indeed for the cause. Yet the fine print of their plan, published by the Hoover Institute and others since then, represents the anti-nuclear nuclearist platform to a tee. It’s a conspicuous yet merely rhetorical commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. These four elder statesmen have said what many U.S. elites have rarely uttered: that abolition is both possible and desirable. However, the anti-nuclear posture in their policy proposal comes to bear only on preventing non-nuclear states from going nuclear, or else preventing international criminal conspiracies from proliferating weapons technologies and nuclear materials for use as instruments of non-state terror. In other words, it’s about other people’s nuclear weapons, not the 99% of materials and arms possessed by the United States and other established nuclear powers.

This position emphasizes an anti-nuclear politics entirely for what it means for the rest of the world — securing nuclear materials and preventing other states from going nuclear or further developing their existing arsenals. U.S. responsibility to disarm remains in the distant future, unaddressed as a present imperative.

Exclusive Route around the CTBT

Concerns about the nuclear programs of other states — mostly Islamic, East and South Asian nations (i.e., Iran, North Korea, etc.) — conveniently work to reinforce existing power relations embodied in U.S. military supremacy and neocolonial relationships of technological inequality and dependence. By invoking their commitment to a “world free of nuclear weapons,” the ideologues behind the anti-nuclear nuclearist platform justify invasions, military strikes, economic sanctions, and perhaps even the use of nuclear weapons themselves against the “rogue states” and “terrorists” whose possession of weapons technologiesvastly less advanced than those perpetually stockpiled by the United States is deemed by the anti-nuclear nuclearists the first and foremost problem of the nuclear age.

Unfortunately the Obama administration is likely to pursue this Orwellian policy of anti-nuclear nuclearism rather than taking a new, saner direction. A strong early indication of this trajectory is his selection of many Clinton administration advisers and officials as national security officials in his Cabinet. The Clinton administration fought hard for the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999, which would commit the United States to cease all nuclear explosions. But, in true anti-nuclear nuclearist fashion, it also gave the United States nuclear weapons labs the Stockpile Stewardship Program, by which they could move forward with a massive scientific effort to develop the knowledge and scientific expertise for virtual weapons design and testing via a multi-billion dollar infrastructure of supercomputers, laser, and flash X-ray facilities that brazenly give the United States an exclusive route around the CTBT. Meanwhile, the United States has further violated the spirit of the treaty by detonating an average of 10 so-called “sub-critical” nuclear bombs every year at the Nevada Test Site since 1997: explosions involving as many as 3.3 pounds of plutonium that stop just short of splitting the atom.

Because non-nuclear states aren’t able to go nuclear without actual testing, the ostensibly anti-nuclear CTBT would lock in less technologically advanced states into a nuclear status quo. By conducting nuclear tests, the non-nuclear nations would justify sanctions under the treaty and presumably trigger military action by the United States.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said as much in her testimony before Congress in 1999:

Since America has no need and does not plan to conduct nuclear explosive tests, the essence of the debate over the CTBT should be clear. It is not about preventing America from conducting tests; it is about preventing and dissuading others from doing so. It’s about establishing the principle on a global basis that it is not smart, not safe, not right, and not legal to conduct explosive tests in order to develop or modernize nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration has been widely viewed by both former Clinton staff and conservative “realists” such as Brent Scowcroft and Kissinger as having squandered opportunities to enact an anti-nuclear nuclearist regime. By pushing aggressively and publicly for new nuclear weapons programs, George W. Bush lost the necessary perception of moral high ground required for such a strategy to succeed. But then again, the neoconservatives have never believed in the “softer” forms of hegemonic power advocated by the Democrats and previous Republican administrations.

Picking Up Where Clinton Left Off

Obama’s administration will inevitably pick up where the Clinton administration left off. Senate Republicans voted down the CTBT in 1999. The Stockpile Stewardship program moved ahead smoothly but is incapable of serving as an effective program for designing the new generation of nuclear weapons envisioned by the U.S. nuclear establishment. Thus, the next stage of the new nuclear imperialism is now being enacted: the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, an effort to develop new nuclear arms and reinvigorate the nuclear weapons complex under the rubric of “replacing” existing nuclear warheads.

Over the next four years, we’re likely to see an increasing commitment to international treaties like the NPT and CTBT on the part of the United States. The Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty’s (SORT) goal of reducing the U.S. strategic force to 1,700-2,200 operational weapons is likely to be achieved and made permanent, thereby creating a false veneer of U.S. intention to disarm. Further cuts might proceed. Most assuredly we’ll witness incredibly aggressive efforts to stop proliferation of nuclear technology aimed at Iran, North Korea, and beyond, involving the use of diplomacy, force, economic coercion, sabotage, proxy attacks, political destabilization, and more.

What’s harder to predict is the fate of the RRW program. On the surface, antinuclear nuclearism is incompatible with new weapons development, and RRW is most certainly a new weapon, no matter what Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratory scientists and administrators claim. But herein lies the unknown. It’s possible that the RRW will get the go-ahead eventually. Just as the Clinton White House relented and gave the weapons labs the Stockpile Stewardship Program, partly as a political pay-off to ensure they wouldn’t obstruct the CTBT’s ratification, so might the Obama administration ratify the new program now so strongly desired by the nuclear weapons complex, so as to secure room for U.S. officials to pursue their nonproliferation efforts at the international level.

Not coincidentally, technological advancements under the Stockpile Stewardship program enable U.S. development of the RRW without the politically taboo need for nuclear testing, as Robert Gates — Bush’s Defense Secretary and now Obama’s — noted in a November 3 speech before the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Gates, of course, was simply referring to an outcome that that Clinton’s Energy and Defense departments sought from day one: the ability to develop and test nuclear weapons using the new virtual weapons development infrastructureat the weapons labs, all without violating the letter of the CTBT. Thus, U.S. status as the world’s leading nuclear hegemon is ensured.

For any of this to happen, the RRW, or the RRW by another name, will have to be significantly repackaged and re-sold to the U.S. public and international community so that it appears as a design intended to reduce U.S. dependence on nuclear weapons and facilitate large cuts in the stockpile, alongside a downsizing of the weapons complex. Leading nuclear weapons scientists, military leadership, and U.S. nuclear officials are calling the RRW “not a new weapon,” and uttering assurances that its purpose is to facilitate reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That it would give the United States nuclear weapons complex a new lease on life into the distant future, cost untold billions of dollars, re-establish plutonium pit production in the United States, and hand over a brand-new weapon design to the military are all rhetorically de-emphasized by the program’s proponents.

Then again, this may all be a worst-case scenario. Perhaps the Obama administration will undertake a more visionary and just campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons? The incoming president could reintroduce the CTBT, nix the RRW and any new weapons designs, cut the nuclear weapons budget in half, stop construction of the plutonium bomb pit factory in New Mexico, close one of the weapons labs, and downsize the entire nuclear weapons complex. Obama could dismantle the profit-driven system of contracts that have made such powerful lobbying interests out of firms with government nuclear contracts. His administration could enjoin talks toward implementing Article VI of the NPT. He could go against the explicitly pro-nuclear power Energy secretary he appointed and enact a ban on new nuclear power development. Continuinity of the status quo, however, is altogether more likely. Hope and change, as this election showed, are possible, but only if those who desire it unconditionally demand it.

Darwin BondGraham is a sociologist who lives and works in New Orleans. Will Parrish is an anti-imperialist organizer and scholar living in northern California. They are coauthoring Atomic Trust: the University of California, Nuclear Weapons, and the Pentagon of Power, a book about nuclearism and academia, and are both Foreign Policy In Focus contributors.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.