Listen to Jonathan Schell and Tom Engelhardt discuss America’s nuclear trajectory and the dilemma of nuclear weaponry in the Obama era.
What is the purpose, if any, of the nuclear bomb, that brooding presence that has shadowed all human life for sixty-five years? The question has haunted the nuclear age. It may be that no satisfactory answer has ever been given. Nuclear strategic thinking, in particular, has disappointed. Many of its pioneers have wound up in a state of something like despair regarding their art. For example, Bernard Brodie, one of the originators of nuclear strategy in the 1940s, was forced near the end of his life to realize that "nuclear strategy itself–the body of thoughts that he himself had helped formulate–was something of an illusion," according to historian Fred Kaplan. In the introduction to The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Lawrence Freedman airs the suspicion that the phrase "nuclear strategy" may be a "contradiction in terms." Henry Kissinger, a leading figure in nuclear strategizing for a half-century, has expressed a similar feeling of futility. In a remarkable reconsideration, amounting to an oblique recantation of his past thinking, he has written recently in Newsweek:
The basic dilemma of the nuclear age has been with us since Hiroshima: how to bring the destructiveness of modern weapons into some moral or political relationship with the objectives that are being pursued. Any use of nuclear weapons is certain to involve a level of casualties and devastation out of proportion to foreseeable foreign-policy objectives. Efforts to develop a more nuanced application have never succeeded, from the doctrine of a geographically limited nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s to the "mutual assured destruction" theory of general nuclear war in the 1970s.
Now a new moment, full of fresh promise but also with novel perils, has arrived in the nuclear story, and all the old questions have to be asked again. As if responding to some secret signal sent out by a restless zeitgeist, the globe is seething with events large and small in the nuclear arena. Here in the United States, certainly, all the policy pots on the nuclear stove are at a boil. Soon, the Obama administration will complete its overdue Nuclear Posture Review, a statement that Congress requires of the president every four years on the disposition of the country’s nuclear forces.
It will give the administration’s answer to the key questions: What nuclear forces should the United States deploy? Why? What, if anything, does the United States propose to do with them? On April 8 the United States and Russia will sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) agreement, which will reduce warheads to 1,550 on each side and restrict delivery vehicles to 800 apiece. Also in early April, President Obama will hold a Nuclear Security Summit with the heads of state of forty-four other nations to consider measures to prevent the diversion of nuclear weapon materials into unauthorized hands. In early May will come the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which is a kind of nuclear posture review for the entire world. Decisions on passage of the long-rejected Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well as a resurrected Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty are also likely very soon.