President Obama’s elusive new nuclear strategy

2014 will be remembered as the year the Cold War restarted. Last month, in light of recent events in Europe, Newport saw the NATO military alliance meet for the first time since 1990. Emerging from the summit, a fresh wave of sanctions set to reprimand Russia for their Ukrainian escapade, along with a united call for NATO members to pull their weight regarding military expenditure. Across the Atlantic, President Obama has also taken this moment to formally announce plans to vastly escalate The United States’ nuclear weapons programme. Directed foremost at Putin, but also with the expansion of China and Pakistan in Asia, and the disruption of IS in the Middle East, this is a warning to any country that the US military is preparing for the worst.

In International Relations theory, Robert Jervis coined the term called ‘The Security Dilemma’. This is the idea that counter-balancing between opposing states, intended for the process of increasing one’s own security, (by increasing arms or showing strength) ultimately reduces and negates the collective security of the international system. The greatest danger is a spiralling escalation. Following the First World War in 1919, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George spoke of how the Great Powers “stumbled towards war.” As NATO and America continue to counterbalance against the perceived Russian threat, all they are doing are raising the stakes for another potential conflict. The fatal difference today, is that both sides now possess the capacity to wipe out the entire human species.

This September, a report in New York Times stated Obama’s intention to ‘modernise’ America’s nuclear capabilities. It is estimated that this plan, exempt from any budget cuts, will cost up to $335 billion over the next ten years. The James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation Studies projects a larger figure of “The Trillion Dollar Triad

The Sword of Damocles

For those of us born arbitrarily in the nuclear age, we may come to overlook the intense dangers that are common place in international politics. Since that dawn in 1945, when the human race discovered the means with which to destroy itself, current figures estimate up to 16,300 nuclear weapons are located at some 98 sites in 14 countries. The obvious risks are apocalyptic. In 1950, President Eisenhower warned a nuclear war would destroy the Northern Hemisphere. With an estimated 4,650 warheads, The United States owns over a quarter of total figure and counting. Obama’s new wish list looks to includes 12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers, 400 land-based missiles, plus upgrades to eight major plants and laboratories. Experts from the Arms Control Association, the Federation of American Scientists deem this “excessive”.

The irony is thick. Five years ago in 2009, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with a special emphasis on his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” The grim prediction from these new stats  indicate that a future US government will in fact fail to meet its target of reducing its nuclear tally to 1,550 by 2018, as termed in the START treaty signed with Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.

As we creep towards the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this miraculous survival in a world with nuclear weapons is often put down to the stability theory ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ – ‘I won’t do it to you, if you don’t do it to me’. M.A.D? Eric Schlosser calls this ‘The Illusion of safety’. These grave risks are best explained looking at case studies of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and Operation Able Archer in 1983; two of the most dangerous moments in history. Both of these crises, and other past examples shockingly undermine the conventional wisdom of nuclear stability theory. In an intense crisis, typical rational human judgement risks being compromised by false intelligence, miscommunication and even computer malfunction.

Cuban Missile Crisis 1962

The traditional narrative of the Cuban Missile taught in school classrooms, tells the tale of a classic “eyeball to eyeball” stand-off between America and Russia with the JFK’s team America winning, and Kruschev’s evil empire backing down. In reality the world came literally to within seconds of a nuclear war, and neither leader could have done anything to prevent it. In 2012, new intelligence emerged, unknown to anyone else at the time, that an American destroyer had been dropping depth charges inadvertently onto a nuclear Russian submarine. The Russian commander, presuming the worst gave the order to retaliate with nuclear tipped torpedoes. Whilst two other officers agreed, a third and final commander managed to talk them out of it. Next time we won’t have Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov to thank. The grave risks of playing hardball would have been irreversible:

“The local Soviet commander could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow… The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.” – Allison Graham

Operation Able Archer 1983

In 1983, the world came edged even closer to the brink. During a particularly icy period of western-Russian relations, a NATO military exercise, Operation Able Archer was falsely anticipated by Russia as a western ground invasion. Russia’s reaction was severely underestimated by NATO, and according to the Journal of Strategic Studies, the exercises “almost became a prelude to a preventative nuclear strike.” Today parallels are frighteningly reminiscent, with a recent series of military exercises on the Ukrainian border, just hundreds of miles from Russia’s own forces.

Computer Malfunctions

Computer failure is also a very real concern and a number of false alarms have previously occurred, almost with fatal consequences. Again in 1983, a computer malfunction from one of Russia’s early-warning defence systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States, sending its nuclear system onto the highest-level alert. Whilst the standard military protocol would have been to retaliate with a second-strike, fortunately, officer Stanislav Petrov disobeyed the orders and we survived to live another day.

Playing with fire

Obama’s new strategy follows the natural escalation of the security dilemma. However the discoveries of 1945 marked a prospective zero-point to this predicament, and a subsequent countdown. So far as we continue to submit ourself to the power of nuclear states to dictate the continued life of our species, this countdown continues. The catch-22 of nuclear politics, is that whilst it is our greatest weapon, it may also be our worst enemy

Surely no sane member of the human race could discover victory in such desolation”
 President Eisenhower, UN ‘Atoms for Peace speech’ 1950


By William Murray

William Murray is a History and Political Science Graduate from the University of Birmingham, currently interning in Public Relations

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Categories: North America

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