The Rhetoric and Reality of Nuclear Threats

The review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) begins today. Here, the U.S. delegation can expect some flak from its counterparts. Specifically, America may be criticized for continuing to maintain a large nuclear arsenal, and reserving the right to use nuclear weapons, however unlikely the threat. But behind this rhetoric lies the more complex story of how we and other countries with nuclear weapons behave.

President Barack Obama made the claim at the recent Nuclear Security Summit that "two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history--the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up."

Unfortunately, this statement is hard to square with reality. India and Pakistan have threatened to use nuclear weapons against each other 26 times during various crises and wars since the end of the Cold War two decades ago. These two countries alone made more nuclear threats between 1991 and 2010 then all the nuclear-armed countries combined in the twenty years prior. By this measure, the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has actually risen.

Ironically, this should bode well for the review conference of the NPT, the linchpin of global efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Why? Neither India nor Pakistan is a member of the treaty. And if countries outside the nuclear mainstream are more prone to nuclear threat-making, this reinforces the security benefits of remaining in the mainstream. Sadly, this message was overshadowed during the previous Review Conference in May 2005, which was held hostage to the pet political issues of a few non-nuclear countries. And the intransigence of the US delegation and its John Bolton-esque playbook certainly didn't help.

The Obama administration has taken some important steps to increase its leverage against this grandstanding. For example, the recent Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) said that the United States will not use or threaten non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the treaty, and in compliance with nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

The rationale for doing so was to strengthen our position and persuade our NPT partners to adopt the measures needed to work toward a non-proliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide.

There has been much criticism over the decision to exclude chemical and biological attacks in the circumstances to which the U.S. might use nuclear weapons. Critics have argued that removing the ambiguity to this type of response diminishes the risk others may take, and thus increases the likelihood of such an attack. They further argue that this will actually increase proliferation by reducing the confidence of U.S. allies in our willingness to defend them against attack, pushing them to develop nuclear deterrents of their own.

In reality, this pledge unites U.S. policy with the practice of U.S.-nuclear diplomacy over the past two decades.

Of the fourteen nuclear threats issued by the U.S. during crises since the end of the Cold War, only one has been to deter the use of chemical and biological weapons - a threat against Iraq prior to the 1991 Gulf War. All of the other U.S. threats have focused on nuclear attack, specifically to Iraq and North Korea's non-compliance with UN regulations and their resistance to nuclear inspections.

The fact remains that the U.S. does not have a record of threatening the use of nuclear weapons in response to chemical or biological attacks. In order to accomplish its important goals of reinvigorating the nonproliferation regime and securing nuclear materials, the Obama administration can make good use of this record. Allies and potential adversaries also will surely find it more persuasive than a policy that says otherwise.

The U.S. policy not only stands in contrast to the conduct of countries outside the NPT, such as India and Pakistan, but also sends a message to countries resisting their nonproliferation obligations, such as Iran.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has threatened to use nuclear weapons mainly to uphold the NPT - it has almost exclusively threatened countries not in compliance with the treaty.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have repeatedly been embroiled in crises with dangerous nuclear overtones. A review of their actions shows that they have threatened one another with nuclear annihilation far more frequently than the U.S., or any other country, has threatened rogue states. As for the rogue states, this new policy only solidifies the case for their adherence to the NPT: if you're in compliance with the treaty, you're safe from nuclear threats.

The history of U.S. nuclear threat-making can actually help the Obama administration make its case both at home and abroad. It will also add to the credibility of the pledges made in the Nuclear Posture Review in that it highlights the security benefits provided by the NPT. The administration should capitalize on this legacy.