US Nuclear Weapons Policy and Arms Control
US Nuclear Policy Review Project
On November 13, 2007, the Stanley Foundation convened a half-day discussion at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Washington, DC, with Bush administration officials, congressional staff, foreign diplomatic staff, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) policy experts, as one of a series of Stanley-organized discussions on US nuclear weapons policy. The Stanley Foundation intends to draw upon the insights and observations raised during these discussions to produce a set of recommendations for future US nuclear weapons policy, to be published later in 2008.

The practice of formal arms control is not dead, but it is definitely ill. In the past decade the United States has declined to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and removed its support from negotiations for a verifiable fissile material cut-off treaty. Cumulatively, these developments signal a substantial departure from past US efforts to constrain nuclear arsenals and call into question the future of arms control. On the one hand, the flexibility of less formal arms control can produce substantial breakthroughs with greater speed. On the other hand, formal Cold War negotiations between the superpowers reduced tensions and built trust between the United States and Russia, helping to stave off direct conflict.

Current US nuclear weapons doctrine does not reflect consensus of the national security community; indeed, there is no widespread consensus on what role US nuclear weapons should play in the post-Cold War world. Opinions are fragmented, and thinking about nuclear weapons is in flux. Participants argued that the current international security environment demands a new nuclear posture. Simply lowering the number of deployed warheads, however desirable, is no substitute for comprehensively reassessing US nuclear strategy. The United States must carefully develop consensus as to the costs and benefits of US nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War world and tailor its nuclear posture accordingly.

In sum, the Bush administration’s attempts to maintain maximum flexibility with regard to the US nuclear arsenal—both by pursuing new weapons and by agreeing to only the most informal of arms control arrangements—may call into question the United States’ willingness to continue reducing its nuclear arsenal and ultimately to disarm, as called for by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This could hinder US nonproliferation efforts. In truth, progress in controlling nuclear weapons can be made without formal arms control treaties, but not without clear agreement on what US nuclear posture should be—agreement that does not currently exist. Congressional calls for a new nuclear posture next year, combined with the inauguration of a new president, could provide an excellent opportunity to effect the first significant change to US nuclear posture in many years.

This page is part of Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, a project from the Stanley Foundation.