For those wondering how President Barack Obama planned to justify his Nobel Peace Prize, two developments last week strongly suggest that it will be by way of his dream of a "world without nuclear weapons." The first was his successful conclusion of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which takes almost a third off the top of both sides' massive nuclear arsenals. The second was Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which declared that "preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism" was the nation's No. 1 strategic priority. At the same time, the review offers a striking new pledge not to use nuclear weapons to retaliate against states in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- even if they attack America with chemical or biological weapons.
It's hard to argue against reducing the number of nuclear weapons. But Obama's new posture document goes even further than that, proposing a substantial reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in America's national security. The difference might seem esoteric, but it's not.
The reduction in numbers is pre-determined by Russia's still-massive, but rapidly decaying arsenal. The new treaty merely codifies what was an inescapable reality for the cash-strapped Red Army, by signaling America's willingness to follow Moscow "downward" on sheer quantity. But, if anything, Russia's shriveled conventional forces leave its security strategy more dependent than ever on nuclear weapons, meaning that for Moscow, shrinking numbers equate to a larger role. As for rising China, the NPR notes that Beijing is engaging in a "qualitative and quantitative modernization of its nuclear arsenal." So while China's nuclear forces are still a mere fraction of our own arsenal, they are clearly growing in both numbers and role.