Winter - 2013 Liss1

Published on January 22nd, 2013


American Nuclear Policy: Two Rational Arguments, One Irrational Outcome

By Elisabeth Aunan

The American nuclear policy is confusing. President Barack Obama announced in a speech in Prague, 2009, the United States’ commitment towards a “global zero”: “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” (Obama in Prague 2009). His initiative has received both massive criticism and praise from the US political establishment. 

Despite his commitment, and plenty of earlier efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, the United States continues to rely on a policy of “calculated ambiguity,” – keeping it an open question whether these weapons may, or may not, be used.

This policy-wavering and inter-party wrangling in the US political establishment is surprising considering the importance of the topic – the very security of the nation. The inconsistent policy creates confusion in regard to the US’ intentions, and thus constitutes a danger for the US itself, and for the world as a whole.

However, there is arguably a good reason behind the disagreements. Possibly, the paradox in the nuclear policy stems from a dual rationality that works to pull the nuclear weapons policy in opposite directions, and results in an inconsistent and less-than-rational outcome.

The rationalities lean on three main logics, in which two of them – the US conventional superiority and the nuclear taboo – make it perfectly rational to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, whereas the third – the logic of nuclear deterrence – makes it perfectly rational to uphold, or even rearm the nuclear arsenal.

The US unequivocal conventional military superiority arguably underpins US unipolarity. Its combat-power is distributed on strategic places around the world, and troops are deployed in more than 150 countries, which generate enormous power that cannot easily be countered. This leading role makes it possible to engage in other countries’ domestic politics, be it in order to export market liberal –and human rights principles, or for reasons of energy security.

Nevertheless, an advantage in conventional capability is worth nothing if other nations can easily counter a conventional attack – or threaten to do so – with a nuclear attack. A world without nuclear weapons would therefore benefit the United States.

However, other academics and policymakers argue that a global zero is utopian and indeed a dangerous goal. Given the assumption that unbalanced power is a threat to individual states, weaker states will naturally try to limit the freedom of action of the stronger. This can be achieved relatively easy through acquiring nuclear weapons.

If one believes in this worldview, the US has no choice but to balance against other nuclear states by upholding its nuclear capability. Nuclear weapons is therefore the best way for the US to maintain its supremacy by deterring potential opponents from upsetting a status quo that is heavily biased in Washington’s favor.

On the other hand, the deterring effect of nuclear weapons may have changed due to an emerging taboo related to its use. Accordingly, the dreadful nature of nuclear weapons inhibits their actual use, and thus leads to a loss of credibility that leaves the logic of deterrence theory obsolete. In regard to US citizens, US allies, and the rest of the international society, it will be hard to justify a nuclear attack, or the threat thereof.

Considering democratic policy makers’ dependence on the public’s approval, the taboo probably affects democracies more than autocracies. As other states recognize this, the logic of deterrence begins to evaporate. The question is thus whether the so-called “nuclear taboo” affects US adversaries` decisions to such an extent that nuclear deterrence no longer makes any sense.



The two different approaches to nuclear weapons, each rational by itself, work to pull Washington’s nuclear policy in opposite directions. It seems like the two rationalities are based on divergent beliefs on whether or not a nuclear weapon-free world is achievable. Because these beliefs depend on how one perceives the very nature of the international system (the ontological standpoint), it is extremely difficult to set a long-term strategy.

The disagreements, however, create a policy with room for interpretation and confusion. As the “leader” in the system, it is of substantial importance which variant of hegemonic strategy the United States pursue, and the first step should be to create consensus inside Washington. Without that, it will become hard to convince other states of working together towards a global zero.


Further reading:

Lieber, K and Press, D (2006): The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy. International Security, 30(4):7-44

Paul, T.V (1995) Nuclear Taboo And War Initiation in Regional Conflicts. The Journal of Conflict Resolution 39(4):696-717

Paul, T.V. (2009) The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons. California: Stanford Unversity Press

Posen, B. R. (2005) US Military Power: Strong Enough to Deter all Challenges? Mit Center for International Studies.

Sauer, T (2011) Eliminating Nuclear Weapons. London: Hurst & Company

Shultz, G. P., W. J. Perry, H. A. Kissinger and S. Nunn (15 January 2008). Toward a Nuclear-Free World. Wall Street Journal.

Tannenwald, N (2007) The Nuclear Taboo. Cambridge: ambridge University Press

Waltz, K. (1981) The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better. Adelphi Papers 171. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies.


*Cover photo by US Army Africa, nuclear bomb photo by Clemens Vasters, firing range photo by US Army Europe.

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