Questions on the World’s Nuclear Future

GMU Professor Greg Koblentz, Leonard Spector, Alexandra Bell, and Suzanne DiMaggio
From left to right

On September 27, 2019, the Schar School’s Center for Security Policy Studies held its annual symposium, and this time the discussion centered around nuclear weapons. Overall, the three panels left us with two broad questions about navigating the nuclear future: how should the U.S. spend money on nuclear defense and how should the U.S. reassure allies to avoid nuclear proliferation?

The first panel, entitled “The Great Powers and the Nuclear Agenda,” discussed nuclear weapons in the context of great power politics and competition. A common theme in this conversation dealt with how the U.S. should spend for future nuclear conflict in light of aging delivery systems and infrastructure? General Frank Klotz spoke about his first-hand experiences working in outdated buildings, observing outdated weaponry, and he argued for maintaining and updating the nuclear triad. He explained that these issues cannot be modernized with “band-aid” fixes and it will require significant U.S. investments. The problem remains that these upgrades are costly.

With a vast supply of potential technology – including traditional nuclear and tactical nuclear weapons systems, missile defense, and long-range and A2/AD weaponry – a limitless supply of money would be required to lead the world in all forms of technology. Does it truly make sense to spend money in revenue sinkholes like the nuclear triad and missile defense? What are the deterrent and compellent trade-offs in reducing spending in these areas? These are questions advocates for increasing defense spending on nuclear weapons need to answer for them to justify such expenditures.

The United States is operating with a plan to vastly increase its nuclear weapons platforms by $400 billion and account for roughly 5 percent of total defense spending costs. Given that a sudden nuclear attack from Russia is unlikely, and that China’s nuclear arsenal is not strong enough to prevent an American counterattack, any nuclear conflict with these two superpowers will most likely emerge out of a conventional fight. Problematically, this increased nuclear spending is competing with conventional weaponry. Uncareful spending serves to ignore fiscal realities while aiming for a “kitchen sink” strategy, and this, in turn, weakens Washington’s conventional deterrence.

Outside of building its own nuclear weapons and related technology, the United States also cares about other countries not gaining the same resources. The second panel dealt with nuclear non-proliferation. All three panelists discussed how the current non-proliferation regime is dealing with threats like a nuclear Iran and North Korea. The overall conclusion is that the U.S. needs to take a more gradual approach to nuclear negotiations with the two countries and that returning to the JCPOA is in the best interest of all involved countries. Painstaking diplomacy, not spotlight summitry, is Washington’s best option moving forward in the technically complicated realm of nuclear technology.

Thus, while non-proliferation amongst adversaries is a clearly important discussion, what about for allies? Trump’s handling of alliances allows these countries to question their relationship with the U.S. Even if Trump is defeated in 2020, his presidency is showing to allies that their alliance agreements are fickle. How can the U.S. ensure that allies in Europe and Asia do not pursue their own nuclear weapons programs? Should policymakers in Washington even care if Germany, Japan, and South Korea develop nuclear weapons programs? These are future concerns that the U.S. will have to address in a changing world order and the strategic impact may forever affect the U.S. alliance system.

Historically, the U.S. alliance system is predicated on Washington’s credible commitment of a nuclear umbrella. This allows countries like Germany, France, Norway, South Korea, and Japan to justify surrendering certain military capabilities over to the United States. In exchange, the U.S. has developed a highly interoperable, credible, and similar visions of threat and purpose. But, if the credibility commitment vis-a-vis nuclear weapons is doubtful, this could drastically alter Washington’s position in NATO and the bilateral Asian alliances. As a result, non-proliferation amongst allies prevents their pursuit of nuclear weapons, and serves to maintain the structure of America’s alliances.

Securing the “nuclear future” places a large burden on American global influence. The day’s last panel discussed the policy implications of the nuclear environment beyond simple nuclear weapons; but unfortunately, in Washington’s world, it is secondary to the security impacts of nuclear weapons. Suggesting that increasing spending to cover all potential damages of nuclear weapons is easy, but doing so historically costs taxpayers money that could be spent in other areas. That is why it is important for the United States to selectively decide where to invest in order to secure its nuclear future.

Jordan Cohen is a Ph.D. Student in Political Science at the Schar School of Policy and Government.

Connor Monie is a M.A. Candidate in International Security at the Schar School of Policy and Government.