U.S. Security Policy and Nuclear Proliferation


U.S. Security Policy and Nuclear Proliferation

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Introduction. 2

A Brief History of Nuclear Weapons in the U.S. Foreign/Security Policy. 3

The Mainstream Position of the U.S. Government Regarding the Use of Nuclear Weapons. 6

Current Debate on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. 9

Prospects for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and Implications for U.S. National Security. 12

Conclusion. 14

References. 16


            Attempts to reduce or even eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the world have been going on as far back as 1970 when the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force (Magnarella, 2008). The decision by sovereign states to participate in negotiations on how to promote the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons was informed largely by the understanding that those weapons are a threat to human existence. They are the most dangerous weapons that humankind has ever made. A fifteen-minute’ alert is all it would take for the United States and Russia to launch nuclear-equipped long-range missiles capable of devastating both societies in less than an hour (Falk & Krieger, 2008). In recent times, the debate has taken on a new perspective, with some advocates of non-proliferation arguing that nuclear weapons have outlived their usefulness in the twenty-first century. One such discussion is contained in a 2010 film, Countdown to Zero, in which some activists argue that the United States should adopt a unilateral policy of complete nuclear disarmament. 


An assessment of current developments in international politics should be undertaken as part of broader efforts by various state and non-state actors to put the non-proliferation debate in the right context. One such development is the expansion of tension in the Ukraine, which could possibly bring the United States and Russia into a nuclear standoff. Another current issue relates to Iran’s efforts to possess nuclear weapons in the near future and the ongoing efforts by the U.S. to ensure that this does not happen. However, even as the United States continues to promote non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, it is a nuclear state itself. In light of this situation, this paper sets out to determine how appropriate (or likely) it would be for the America to advance such a policy. The thesis of this paper is that it is appropriate for America to advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons but the country is unlikely to lead the way by eliminating its own nuclear weapons because of strategic defense considerations of nuclear deterrence and assurance.

A Brief History of Nuclear Weapons in the U.S. Foreign/Security Policy

The U.S. policy on nuclear weapons as a tool of foreign and security policy may be traced to 1945 when the country’s nuclear doctrine was conceptualized. Five years later, the doctrine had already started evolving as senior nuclear weapon strategists in the country started setting ground rules for the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The strategists justified their recommendation for increasing the American atomic armaments by pointing out that no effective international arms control mechanisms had been put in place. Throughout the Cold War period, America pursued a policy of nuclear peace and deterrence as well as readiness for a nuclear war in the event that nuclear deterrence failed. To ensure that this policy was highly effective, America enlisted the services of highly experienced political leaders and defense strategies, who worked in close collaboration with complex military organizations.

During the development of the U.S. nuclear doctrine, the Soviet Union was viewed as the source of the greatest nuclear threat for America (Rhodes, 2012). Thus, the doctrine sought to answer questions regarding what the United States should do to avoid the possibility of a Soviet nuclear attack. To answer this question, America adopted the counterforce nuclear doctrine. In this doctrine, the country focused on its ability to attack any forces that were capable of attacking and damaging it as well as its allies. Other than the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union, the U.S. nuclear strategy was also been influenced by the notion of mutual assured destruction, whereby the threat of indiscriminate destruction of the adversary’s society was viewed as the most effective deterrence tool for both the United States and Russia during the Cold War. For instance, it influenced the quality and quantity of the nuclear weapons that the United States was procuring. Moreover, the idea influenced many aspects of nuclear war planning in America. Additionally, the idea of assured destruction was at the forefront of the targeting policy that America adopted for retaliating against a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union in a manner that would retard the country’s ability to recover from the conflict and regain its status as a leading military power.

Between 1945 and 1950, America enjoyed the status of a monopoly as a nuclear power, and thus it underestimated the potential role of an atomic bomb as a nuclear weapon. However, the nation changed its policy on potential use of nuclear weapons in a war following the 1948 Berlin crisis. Senior officials in the U.S. government realized that the use of nuclear weapons would become a necessity in the event that the Soviet Union attacked any Western European country. During the 1950s, the United States responded to the Soviet Union’s growing nuclear stockpile by increasing its stockpiles as well, thereby triggering a nuclear arms race. America also developed the policy of a preemptive attack after rejecting propositions on the idea of a preventive war, particularly in the wake of Soviet Union’s atomic bomb test in 1949.


During the 1960s and early 1970s, the idea of minimum deterrence was rejected within American policy circles. Rather, emphasis was on building nuclear capabilities that would facilitate both the targeting of military installations while retaining the capability to destroy Soviet cities if the need to do so arose (Wolfsthal & Collina, 2002). The strategy became known as counter-city and counterforce targeting. During the late 1970s, the U.S. nuclear policy evolved to cover to new aspects. The first one involved providing more credible deterrence and the second one involved reorienting the concept of assured destruction to ensure that the U.S. maintained the ability to deal a death knell to the economic recovery capabilities of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1980s, America continued reviewing its nuclear targeting policy through counter-leadership and counter-military targeting to countervail the Soviet Union’s growing nuclear offensive capabilities (Sagan, 1990).

When the Cold War finally ended in 1991, America made a radical overhaul in its security and foreign policy on nuclear weapons. The nuclear arms race was finally over. This is the main reason America has not carried out an experiment on or tested a nuclear weapon since 1992 (Dodge & Spring, 2013). The generation of American scientists and engineers with considerable experience in designing and testing nuclear weapons will retire in the foreseeable, a development that will have profound effects on the nation’s position as a leader in nuclear technology. To some people, this is a reflection of the growing irrelevance of nuclear weapons as a deterrence tool. To others it represents a dangerous situation that puts the nation in a position where it is incapable of using nuclear technology to address the security challenges it faces in the present century.

            Although the U.S. foreign/security policy on nuclear weapons has changed a lot since 1945, some of its tenets have remained unchanged. For example, all administrations have utilized the threat of retaliation with nuclear weapons to deter nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union. Another example is that successive administrations have endeavored to reorient their nuclear plans in such a way that U.S. interests are protected and that the risk of damage is maintained at the barest minimum level in the event that war occurs. This element of continuity in the pursuit of these two objectives means that America continues to maintain the significant counterforce capabilities it established following its first use of a nuclear weapon in 1945. In other words, U.S. nuclear capabilities may be argued to transcend the history of nuclear weapons, thereby underscoring the primary role of the United States in the ongoing attempts to eliminate all existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the world.

The Mainstream Position of the U.S. Government Regarding the Use of Nuclear Weapons

            The U.S. government acknowledges the numerous changes that have occurred in the international security environment in the post-Cold War era, one of them being the decreased likelihood of a nuclear war. However, the world faces a high risk of a nuclear attack, mainly through nuclear terrorism (Caldicott, 2006). In this regard, the understanding is that terrorists would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if they gained access to them. Another major threat that the U.S. government acknowledges is nuclear proliferation. The main concern in this regard is that countries with poor relations with the U.S. such as Iran and South Korea are pursuing nuclear capabilities, thereby threatening U.S. security interests. America continues to protest these countries’ blatant violation of non-proliferation obligations. In light of this situation, the U.S. government is seeking to align its nuclear policies to its urgent priorities of preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Some of the measure being undertaken in the pursuit of these objectives include efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear materials across the world, enhancing the effectiveness of international mechanisms for severing networks through which nuclear materials can be smuggled to terrorists and rogue states, and initiating a research program that supports efforts aimed at creating a nuclear-free world.

            The U.S. government has also taken a staunch position in the ongoing global efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. The government has demonstrated commitment to this objective by seeking to reverse Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions. The commitment has also been exhibited through efforts to strengthen the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards that have been put in place under NPT. Moreover, the U.S. government is fully committed to the task of imposing consequences for states that refuse to comply with existing obligations on nuclear proliferation. At the same time, American continues to use its position as the world’s superpower to impede trade in nuclear materials. One way in which the government is doing this is by funding various countries to enable them to build strategic trade controls aimed at detecting cross-border movement of nuclear materials.

            Another major objective for the U.S. administration is to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in the country’s security. Today, nuclear weapons are being used as a deterrence tool, and this situation will remain as long as nuclear weapons exist in the world. U.S. defense strategists acknowledge that the role of deterring and responding to non-nuclear threats using nuclear weapons has declined dramatically. As a corollary, these strategists reiterate the U.S. commitment to the task of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons as a tool for responding to non-nuclear attacks. To reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons, the U.S. government seeks to continue meeting all its commitments under the NPT, especially the goal of nuclear disarmament within the next ten years. Another way to pursue this objective is by increasing conventional capabilities for use in dealing with non-nuclear attacks, thereby reserving nuclear weapons or use in dealing exclusively with nuclear attacks. The U.S. government also reiterates that it will only use nuclear weapons in very extreme circumstances where it is compelled to protect its vital national interests as well as those of its partners and allies. Additionally, the government reasserts its commitment to refrain from using nuclear weapons against NPT members as required in various international non-nuclear proliferation obligations (U.S. Department of Defense, 2010).

            On the other hand, America is keen to maintain strategic deterrence using reduced levels of nuclear force. This objective is being pursued based on the understanding that the nuclear weapons that America continues to maintain are more than what it needs for deterrence. Moreover, the decision is guided by the view that the challenge of reducing force levels will continue to evolve remarkably in the years to come thereby increasing the urgency for holding stability dialogues for strategic reasons. The United States has already carried out an in-depth analysis of how to reduce strategic weapons based on the understanding that Russia will undertake parallel reductions. In this analysis, which was undertaken in the Nuclear Posture Review of 2009, focus was on the specific nuclear weapons that needed to be reduced, and U.S President Barack Obama approved recommendations on bilateral negotiations with Russia on the process of reducing the strategic deployment of nuclear weapons.

            The specific areas that have already been agreed on within defense-policy circles in the United States as far as reductions in nuclear deployments are concerned include strategic stability in the form of second-strike capabilities, retention of existing force structure to create room for the adoption of contingent plans in the event of operational problems, and the maintenance of the capabilities that will be needed in the coming decades primarily in the form of adequate infrastructure and well-trained military personnel (Dodge & Spring, 2013). These efforts have led to the realization of several objectives, the most important of which is consensus with Russia on the number of strategic warheads and nuclear bombers that each nation should deploy in line with the overarching goal of promoting strategic stability using reduced levels of nuclear force.


            At the same time, America is keen on responding to the changes that have occurred in the global security environment. One of them is that many countries continue to look up to the United States for assistance with their own security challenges. In the absence of partnerships with the United States, those countries may suffer irreparable damage through weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation, and total failure of state security apparatuses. At the same time, some states feel threatened by the ongoing efforts by neighboring states to assert their regional dominance, sometimes by launching nuclear programs. In the absence of regional and bilateral relations with the United States, such states may be persuaded to begin developing nuclear ambitions. The U.S. government continues to express its commitment to the pursuit of regional and bilateral relations with such states as part of its ongoing efforts to provide leadership in the nuclear non-proliferation movement. An important component of these efforts entails giving assurances, demonstrating commitment, and continuing with forward deployment of the nation’s forces to strategic regions. Towards this end, America also continues to strengthen its non-nuclear capabilities as well as those of its allies.

Current Debate on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

            In the current debate, a lot of emphasis is on eliminating nuclear weapons. One of the earliest voices in the debate on the elimination of nuclear weapons was made by drafters of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT requires state parties to stop manufacturing nuclear weapons, to liquidate their existing stockpiles, and to eliminate all their nuclear arsenals as well as the means of delivering them to their potential targets. The treaty also stipulates that this disarmament process should be subjected to strict international control, with the overarching objective being to ease international tension as well as strengthen trust among states.

            Despite its best intentions, the NPT was found to contain some weaknesses, which greatly contributed to the decision by some states to come up with the idea of establishing nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs). Most members of these zones are in the Global South and Central Asia. Some Middle Eastern states are also considering establishing a similar zone under the auspices of the Arab League. Member states of these zones have entered an agreement in which they reject the use of nuclear weapons within their territories as well as the use of those weapons against them.

            Some successes have been achieved under the NPT, with the main one being that it has managed to convince the United States, Russia, China, the UK, and France, who are the main NWSs, to become state parties through ratification. Moreover, the number of its state parties has risen to 189 (Magnarella, 2008). On the other hand, the main weakness of the NPT is that member states have not showed much interest in Article 6 of the Treaty, which addresses the issue of disarmament. Another weakness is that some of the nuclear weapon states (NWSs), which include Israel, Pakistan, and India, have not yet ratified the NPT. Moreover, North Korea, an NWS, ratified the treaty but renounced it afterwards. Perhaps the treaty’s greatest weakness is that it has failed to prohibit NWSs from using their nuclear capabilities against non-NWSs.

In the meantime, a lot of focus in the current debate is on the role of the United States in efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. According to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the United States is currently the most atrocious offender of the disarmament policy as stipulated under the NPT Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2015). This is demonstrated by the country’s tendency to apply double standards in relation to compliance with the non-proliferation treaty. The United States is very keen to move on to the next generation of nuclear weapons yet it strongly rejects attempts by other states to make a similar move. Similarly, the United States undoubtedly supports the nuclear non-proliferation agenda but it also avoids being questioned on what it views as its right to continue maintaining enormous stocks of nuclear weapons and to continue with its military doctrine that embraces the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. For example, in 2002, the country deployed a state-of-the art missile defense system aimed at enhancing the U.S. first-strike capability with the use of a nuclear weapon. Moreover, Congress approved new budgetary allocations for nuclear weapons research. To many observers, such a move shows that the United States is keen on developing new nuclear weapons for strategic defense considerations. The implication is that the U.S. is keen to promote the idea of a world without nuclear weapons but it is unwilling to lead the way by eliminating its own nuclear stockpiles.

Russia and China have responded to U.S. actions by putting in place plans to modernize their nuclear armaments. These developments have led the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to decry the double standards being portrayed by the United States. According to the IAEA Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, nations should stop promoting the idea that it is right for some countries to rely on weapons of mass destruction for security and wrong for others to pursue those weapons (Bunn, 2003). According to ElBaradei, nuclear weapons should be eliminated from all countries (Bunn, 2003). The image of the United States as a leader in the non-proliferation efforts has also been tarnished by the favoritism it portrays in its pursuit of cases involving violations of non-proliferation obligations. For example, political considerations have influenced the country’s lenience towards the cases of Israel and Pakistan following the two countries’ violations of NPT regulations. In contrast, the United States has been vigorously pursuing the case of North Korea, its nemesis, following the latter’s decision to pursue a nuclear program.

It is fortunate that the idea that nuclear weapons have outlived their usefulness has gained traction across the world (Ritchie & Ingram, 2010). Many strong movements that oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons have emerged not only in the United States but also Western Europe. Unfortunately, these efforts have not stopped the deployment of nuclear weapons across Europe through the U.S.-led NATO (Glaser & Fetter, 2001). These weapons, which are mainly targeted at Russia and Iran, have created a precarious situation, may remain unresolved unless the antagonists embrace bold to declare their respective territories NWFZs (nuclear-weapon-free zones). The United States is unwilling to take a lead in such a move because of security considerations. The country is highly unlikely to abandon the component of nuclear deterrence posture as long as nuclear weapons exist in the world.

Prospects for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons and Implications for U.S. National Security

            A global debate has emerged, whereby focus is on reducing dangers relating to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. For example, the Obama administration continues to voice concerns about the likelihood of nuclear weapons falling in the hands of terrorists. In 2009, the United States and Russia entered into formal negotiations on a treaty on the reduction of nuclear arms. However, even as these talks continue, the United States has been toying with the idea of investing in new nuclear technology as parts of its security strategy. This is a strong indication that as long as the world expects the United States to lead the way by destroying its nuclear armaments, prospects for the elimination of nuclear weapons in the world remain bleak. The world’s superpower is simply not ready to break free from its decades’ old strategy of nuclear deterrence.

Nevertheless, this has not stopped stakeholders across the world from renewing their efforts to campaign for the elimination of these weapons based on the argument that they have outlived their usefulness in the twenty-first century. For example, in 2009, sixty five member states met in Geneva for a Conference on Disarmament to discuss progress on the establishment of a treaty governing the handling of fissile material (Kile, 2010). Another important development was the enactment of two NWFZ treaties covering Africa and Central Asia. In 2014, the Republic of the Marshall Islands pressed lawsuits against the five nuclear-armed global powers, which include the United States, the UK, Russia, China, and France, arguing that they have failed to meet their international obligations as stipulated under Article VI of the NPT to engage in good-faith negotiations aimed at accomplishing the objective of complete nuclear disarmament (Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2015).

Moreover, the UN Security Council has operationalized a resolution that highlights areas of consensus on the actions that states need to promote in order for the goal of nuclear disarmament to be achieved. It is unfortunate that little progress has been made in the ongoing efforts to address the cases North Korea and Iran, both of which relate to nuclear programs. The present worries regarding possible spread of nuclear weapons to other states arise from the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. The United States is at the forefront of efforts to dissuade both countries from pressing on with their nuclear ambitions. Another development that may portend a setback for proponents of the elimination of nuclear weapons is the IAEA’s report indicating that Syria and Myanmar could possibly be operating undeclared nuclear sites. In Syria, the IAEA investigators raised suspicions about an undeclared nuclear facility in the eastern part of the country. In 2007, Israel launched an attack on the nuclear site, whose construction, it claimed, was being undertaken with North Korea’s assistance. In Myanmar, suspicions from dissident groups that a clandestine nuclear facility was being constructed secretively emerged in 2009. Like Syria, Myanmar was suspected of collaborating with North Korea in a nuclear program. In these claims, a major concern is as much about national security as it is about a setback in the quest for the elimination of nuclear weapons. For the United States though, the latter issues seems to fall within the realm of political rhetoric.

The current multilateral initiatives to combat nuclear efforts are unlikely to succeed as long as the United States continues to promote its strategy of nuclear deterrence. Under the current circumstances where the threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists via rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, the United States would be in a dangerous position if it unilaterally renounced its nuclear deterrence strategy. However, this resolve has not stopped the country from participating in the renewed non-proliferation debate. For example, The U.S. administration continues to express commitment to the enactment of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). A hotly contested issue is whether FMCT should focus on banning the production of fissile material in future or only or prohibit the use of the existing fissile materials to produce new nuclear weapons. It has also has started to view multilateral diplomacy from a positive perspective as part of its ambitious efforts aimed at reducing dangers arising from the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists.

The Obama administration justifies its continued support of the country’s traditional nuclear posture in various ways. The first justification is that the reality about the current world calls for the maintenance of the nuclear deterrence posture (U.S. Department of Defense, 2010). Secondly, elimination of nuclear weapons is being viewed as a long-term goal, one that cannot be achieved by one administration. The third justification is that although the Cold War has ended and the deterrence challenge has changed, the goal of reassurance remains. This line of argument creates the impression that today’s national security priorities for the United States are targeted primarily at deterrence against nuclear terrorism as well as reassurance rather than elimination of nuclear weapons.


            The idea that nuclear weapons have outlived their usefulness in the twenty-first century and should thus be eliminated from the world has continued to gain traction in recent times. Now that the Cold War is over, the United States is no longer preoccupied with nuclear deterrence as a strategy for dealing with a possible nuclear war. Rather, its nuclear deterrence objective is currently directed at addressing the threat of a nuclear attack from terrorists. Thus, the country continues to reject calls for the adoption of a unilateral policy of complete nuclear disarmament, and instead continues to hold onto its decades-old nuclear deterrence posture for strategic defense considerations. This is a major setback for the non-proliferation movement that started in 1970. Yet the country justifies its stance by arguing that its nuclear deterrence posture provides assurance to states that would otherwise decide to pursue their own nuclear programs in the face of growing security threats posed by their nuclear-armed neighbors.

            An overview of the history of nuclear weapons in the United States shows that successive administrations have maintained an element of continuity since1945 in the pursuit of two objectives: the threat of retaliation and the protection of U.S. national interests. Thus, it is unreasonable to expect the country to lead the way in eliminating nuclear weapons. Such a move would not only render the country incapable of using the threat of retaliation to provide deterrence against nuclear attacks, it would also put the country in too dangerous a position internationally.

Thus, while the current U.S. administration acknowledges that the ultimate objective is to eliminate nuclear weapons, it is also aware of its responsibility to safeguard the country’s national security interests. This explains the double standards the administration has been applying in the non-proliferation debate, whereby it coerces other nations to halt their own nuclear programs but at the same time dodges questions regarding the legitimacy of its own nuclear armaments. In conclusion, this paper confirms the thesis that it is appropriate for America to advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons but the country is unlikely to lead the way by eliminating its own nuclear weapons because of the strategic defense considerations of nuclear deterrence and assurance.


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