Nuclear Primacy: What does the hawk say?

It is revealing to note that during the present 2016 US presidential campaign, none of the candidates have been asked much about what they believe the nation’s nuclear doctrine should be. It’s the trillion-dollar question that has been kept out of popular discourse. The candidates have not been asked such questions as whether “nuclear sharing” among NATO allies violates the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), or whether America is obliged under the treaty to treat the abolition of the nuclear arsenal as an urgent matter. Do they agree with the previous administration’s decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and pursue a doctrine of nuclear primacy toward Russia and China? [1] The average reader of this blog is probably more familiar with these issues, but the candidates would likely be at a loss as to how to answer these questions. Either they couldn’t answer or they wouldn’t want to.
Public anxiety about nuclear war has faded since the 1990s. Back then there were some reasons to relax. The arsenals of the superpowers decreased from 60,000 to 14,000 warheads, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty led to the elimination of short-range missiles and tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and Western Russia. During the late Gorbachev and early Yeltsin years, there was enough trust in the bilateral relationship for Americans and Russians to feel like they would get along as normally as any other pair of countries. Russia was too weak and troubled to be considered much of a threat.
All of this started to change in the late 1990s when Russia and the US took up different sides in the Serbia-Kosovo conflict, NATO expanded eastward, and America meddled in the internal affairs of what is referred to as “the former Soviet space.” In this century, since Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has been steadily demonized and restored to its status as most favored threat to American hegemony.
During the Bush presidency, while everyone was distracted by the war on terror and the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon established a new nuclear doctrine, which was actually the old dream from the 1940s of establishing nuclear primacy: the possession of superior capabilities that could, in a first strike, neutralize all of an opponent’s nuclear weapons—the winnable nuclear war. America had walked out of the ABM treaty a few years earlier and so it was also working on "missile defense" systems which, logically, have offensive purposes, as anti-missile missiles allow the possessor to neutralize a an enemy's retaliation to its own first strike.
An article in the March 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs this announced this new status of nuclear primacy and caused an uproar in both Washington and Moscow [2]. In the ten years that have passed Russia has scrambled to upgrade its capabilities and restore nuclear parity. Not coincidentally, relations between the two countries have worsened while the significance of this historic change has been largely forgotten.
Now that NATO and the US Pacific alliance (with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and others) are carrying out provocations against Russia and China, the issue is finally appearing in some circles of elite opinion in the American media, but it is still not a popular campaign issue.
If any of the presidential candidates were asked whether they were hawks, doves or owls on the question of nuclear primacy, they wouldn’t know for sure what was being asked. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would probably reflexively claim to be hawks, while Bernie Sanders would probably defer and say, “I’ll get back to you on that one.” He has devoted so little attention to foreign policy during his campaign that he has actually gone on record as saying Qatar has to do more to fight ISIS—oblivious to the well-known fact that Qatar is one of the Middle Eastern American allies that has abided and assisted ISIS as a tool for de-stabilizing Syria and ousting its head of state. Based on his view of the problem, we have to wonder if Bernie Sanders has any ideas for what to do about Turkey, NATO partner and sharer of American nuclear weapons. Turkey has facilitated ISIS in selling oil from the wells it controlled before the Russian intervention, and it is determined to undermine the Kurdish forces that have been one of the most effective anti-ISIS fighters. This issue has been widely reported, but the radical anti-war candidate in the presidential race seems to have no awareness of it, or interest in talking about it.[3]
The question about hawk, dove or owl relates the question above: Do you agree with the previous administration’s decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and pursue a doctrine of nuclear primacy toward Russia and China?
Hawks believe that American hegemony is benevolent, and even if that belief isn’t sincere, they say that nuclear primacy is a worthwhile pursuit. If America has the means to become the dominant force in the world, it should seize the opportunity because, in the world view of hawks, one is either the hunter or the hunted.
Doves believe the world will never see a hegemon as benevolent, regardless of the high esteem the hegemon has for itself. The world is better off being multi-polar. Nations should achieve peace through diplomacy, parity of forces, international law, and mutual regard for each other’s interests. The very act of threatening nuclear attack, which is implicit in the possession of nuclear weapons, is morally reprehensible.
Owls believe the doctrine of nuclear primacy madly risks nuclear Armageddon, by accident or design, no matter how good the odds might be that America could wipe out all of an adversary’s nuclear arsenal before being hit with even one retaliatory strike. The owls might say the doves are naïve, but they say the hawkish approach is reckless and unwise.
Even if America did not initiate nuclear war, it would still share responsibility for the outbreak of nuclear war—it must have done something to provoke a first strike—something like, let’s say, maintaining a doctrine of nuclear primacy? But what if America did strike first? Even if the possessor of nuclear primacy could prevail and wipe out all of its adversary’s nuclear capability without being hit by even one nuclear bomb (doubtful), the after-effects would be an ecological and a humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented and unpredictable consequences, with blowback and fallout on the perpetrator that would make this the most Pyrrhic victory in history. It would be unlikely that such a nation could survive the wrath of the global community and the chaos that would follow a first strike that would have to consist of hundreds of nuclear detonations.
Obviously, nuclear primacy serves primarily as a deterrent and an instrument for establishing global hegemony. The possessor of nuclear primacy knows the hardware can never be used, but there is great value in making others wonder if it might be used, which is why no one promises the meaningless promise of no-first-use. The threats, the wielding of the club—these are the non-explosive uses of nuclear weapons that are coveted in the pursuit of nuclear primacy. And of course, there is money to be made in all of this. The trillion-dollar nuclear modernization program is going to stuff corporate profits and keep suburban real estate prices high in places like Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Meanwhile, the second-tier adversaries China and Russia know that the possessor of nuclear primacy wouldn’t dare exercise its advantage, so they can push back with asymmetrical tactics—propaganda, diplomacy, alliance formation, economic ties, support for the superpower’s adversaries in regional wars, support for adversaries’ dissidents, and so on. The nations of the world have more urgent things to do than to get caught up in this game, but this is the distraction that nuclear weapons bring on.

Violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in word and/or in spirit

Of all the treaties concerning nuclear weapons, none is more important than the NPT. [4] It is also fatally flawed because it has allowed the nuclear powers to get away with saying that whatever is not forbidden is allowed. The wording of the treaty does not clearly require and set a timeline for disarmament, and it doesn’t specifically forbid the “sharing” of nuclear weapons and the provision of nuclear “umbrellas” to allies. Finally, it gives all signatories the right to develop nuclear energy, under the mistaken belief that the proliferation of nuclear waste can be controlled in a way that doesn’t lead to fissionable waste products being used to make weapons. Even if this level of control could be achieved, much of the global population now considers the existence of nuclear waste to be an unacceptable ecological hazard and burden on future generations. The Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns all happened after the treaty was drafted in the late 1960s.
One can only conclude from the failure of the treaty to lead to disarmament that the flaws in it are the very reason that it exists at all. If it didn’t provide loopholes to the nuclear powers, they never would have signed it. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty also has an escape clause that allows the US to resume testing if confidence is ever lost in the viability of the nuclear arsenal. [5]

Nuclear Sharing

The United States shares nuclear weapons with several countries in NATO—The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Turkey. [6] The UK and France have their own nukes. The weapons remain under American control while on NATO bases, but soldiers of the host countries are trained in how to take over bombing missions in the event of war. The NPT prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons, but since the weapons remain under American possession and control, the US claims this is not a treaty violation. The weapons would be transferred only after war has been declared, in which case the treaty would no longer be in force. This of course is absurd hair-splitting and a violation of the spirit of the treaty.
Likewise, the offer of a nuclear umbrella to allies does nothing to stop proliferation. These allies should be saying no thanks to such protection because it also turns the ally into a target. It would be much better to declare neutrality and rebuke the nuclear powers, if they are indeed sincere about eliminating nuclear weapons from the world. Nonetheless, the US claims that the sharing of nuclear weapons or a nuclear umbrella stops allies from wanting their own arsenals, so these agreements are supposedly in the spirit of the NPT. Yet these countries are already signatories of the NPT. If we are to assume that they would abrogate the treaty (only three months’ notice required) at any time in order to become nuclear powers, we have to ask if treaties are worth the paper they are written on—worth all the effort that goes into making them, and worthy of faith placed in them. If they truly are so fragile, treaties are just bare threads with which the human race sometimes manages to restrain is basest impulses.
The numerous civil society groups campaigning for nuclear disarmament may be just as ineffective. The modernization program, the nuclear primacy doctrine and the escalating tensions with Russia and China have all occurred while there has been an apparent renaissance of the anti-nuclear campaigns that went dormant in the 1990s. While their positive effects are hard to prove, they may be creating an illusion that change is on the way when things are actually getting worse.
VladimirPutin at a meeting with heads of the world’s leading news agencies on the sidelines of the 20th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF 2016) June 17, 2016. Mikhail Metzel/TASSption

The new deployment of anti-missile installations in Poland and Romania, along with NATO exercises to deter Russian aggression, have exasperated Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has recently taken to talking directly to Western journalists in various forums to counter the propaganda campaign against him and Russia, and to argue that Russia poses no threat to anyone. A recent example:

The “Iranian threat” does not exist, but the NATO Missile Defense System is being positioned in Europe. That means we were right when we said that their reasons are not genuine. They were not being open with us—always referring to the “Iranian threat” in order to justify this system. Once again they lied to us. Now the system is functioning and being loaded with missiles. As you journalists should know, these missiles are put into capsules which are used in the Tomahawk long range missile system. So these are being loaded with missiles that can penetrate territories within a 500-km range. But we know that technologies advance, and we even know in which year the US will accomplish the next missile. This missile will be able to penetrate distances up to 1,000 km and even farther. And from that moment on, they will start to directly threaten Russia’s nuclear potential. We know year by year what’s going to happen, and they know that we know. It’s only you [journalists] that they tell tall tales to, and you buy them and spread them to the citizens of your countries. You people in turn do not feel a sense of the impending danger. This is what worries me. How do you not understand that the world is being pulled in an irreversible direction while they pretend that nothing is going on? I don’t know how to get through to you anymore.” [7]

To note how extraordinary this conversation with the foreign media is, one only has to imagine President Obama doing the same thing: stating his case to a room full of journalists, business leaders and intellectuals from Russia, China and Latin America, for whom he has provided translators (imagine a US president patiently waiting for all the dialog to be translated). It never happens. Americans these days prefer to give speeches to each other on the decks of aircraft carriers. President Obama can’t speak and wouldn't speak to skeptical foreign audiences because the “Russian aggression” ruse is a baseless assertion. America’s actions this century—drone warfare, invading nations and toppling leaders without UN authority, inciting revolt in foreign countries, refusing to live up to treaty obligations and follow UN resolutions—these actions are all indefensible under international law, not to mention common sense understandings of fairness and morality in international relations.
It seems that whatever happens in the street and in civil society no longer has any effect on the decisions made by the advocates of war. They have learned to tune out whatever happens outside the gates. In early 2003, millions of people poured into the streets of the world’s capital cities to object to the coming illegal invasion of Iraq. In London, the prime minister’s residence was surrounded by 1,000,000 people angrily roaring for no war. Tony Blair was inside for hours listening to the throng, but it didn’t stop him from going along with American plans. [8]
There may be only two ways to get off the road to ruin. One would be a radical change in the policies of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the American government. To renounce nuclear primacy and begin meaningful steps toward nuclear disarmament, the American people would have to elect a majority of unbought representatives who are ready to make these goals a top priority, and the judiciary could take up the cause as a civil rights issue (the right under the constitution to live free of the threat of nuclear annihilation). There is no reason to believe that advocacy groups and street demonstrations have had any effect on those in power or on the list of issues that voters care about. Furthermore, even if nuclear abolition became the will of the majority, some rather undemocratic methods would probably be employed to neutralize it. Recent “irregularities” in US primary voting suggest that the progressive insurgency has threatened the established two-party system and led it to carry out widespread electoral fraud. [9]
With the American voter apathetic or disenfranchised by this dysfunctional voting infrastructure, there is only the second option. Outside pressure is the only way left to influence American foreign policy. Russia’s and China’s diplomatic and public relations efforts can influence global opinion, and if European leaders and other allies can start to push back and think for themselves, they may be able to derail the wildest ambitions of the American agenda. In June 2016, as NATO was preparing to carry out operations against imagined Russian aggression in the Baltic states, German defense minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, voiced a dissenting view:

What we should not do now is inflame the situation with saber-rattling and warmongering. Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken. We are well-advised not to create pretexts to renew an old confrontation. [10]

The same week, one NATO general, Petr Pavel, also pointed at the naked emperor and broke with consensus opinion:

It is not the aim of NATO to create a military barrier against broad-scale Russian aggression because such aggression is not on the agenda and no intelligence assessment suggests such a thing. [11] [12]

These men are a small minority, and don’t expect them to be quoted much in British, Canadian or American media. Nonetheless, their comments could be a sign that a few cooler heads are daring to speak out.
Even without access to intelligence, General Pavel could see the flawed logic apparent to any observer. If it is mutually understood that America and NATO have vastly superior conventional and nuclear advantages, why would Russia invade a NATO member? Knowing the suffering of the Russian people in WWII, and knowing the problems that contemporary Russia must contend with in its own territory, why would anyone believe that it is about to launch a war of aggression? There is no plausible motive. Yet there are some obvious motives for the other side to exaggerate the threat. As in any murder investigation, one just needs to ask cui bono? NATO countries have to conjure the Russian threat in order to justify the existence of NATO. They are increasing the percentage of GDP they spend on military at the very time they are enforcing austerity on their own citizens in social spending. The most plausible ultimate cause of all this belligerence is arms manufacturers seeking an endless expansion of markets and profits. They will not stop, as Isaac Newton might say if he were alive, until they are met with an equal and opposite force.


[1] John Steinbach, “The Bush Administration, U.S. Nuclear War-Fighting Policy & the War On Iraq,Counterpunch, May 2016.

[2] Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Rise of Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, March 2006.

[3] Stehen Lendman, “More Evidence of Turkey’s Support of the Islamic State (ISIS), in Liaison with US and NATO,” Global Research, January 12, 2016.

[4] Arms Control Association, “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at a Glance.”

[5] Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 342.

[6] Xanthe Hall, “Time for Nuclear Sharing to End,” Open Democracy, October 8, 2015.

[7] “Putin Warns of Nuclear War,” Fort Russ, June 22, 2016.

[9] Kim LaCapria, “Poll Position,” Snopes.com, June 15, 2016,

[12] Jerry Brown, “A Stark Nuclear Warning: Review of ‘My Journey at the Nuclear Brink’ by William Perry,” The New York Review, July 14, 2016 Issue.
If readers would like to protest that I have cited too many suspect Russian sources, this review of a book by a 60-year veteran of the American defense establishment provides similar support. William Perry has described how he, as secretary of defense, opposed the eastward expansion of NATO during the second term of the Clinton presidency, but was overruled.

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