IPCS US Election Special

Hillary's Nuclear Policy: A Time of Change, Dithering, or Sameness?

02 Nov, 2016    ·   5163

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar comments on why history may remember Clinton only as the president who stayed the course laid by her predecessor

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

An Inexpedient Second

The last time a Democrat President was elected to office after two terms of a Democratic presidency was 180 years ago. A certain Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in 1836. Coincidentally he was a former Secretary of State. The occurrence is unique in an unflattering way for a variety of reasons which has little to do with the candidate’s merits but more with the ballotter’s disposition. Significant of these fancies are: exaction for change, anti-incumbency, voter fatigue, absence of choice and the resigned philosophical knowledge that this would be a one-off, destined to enter office as a ‘lame-duck'.

In the current presidential race, two candidates have been thrust on the electorate who under circumstances of choice would have been spurned. Donald Trump comes with dangerous impetuousness while Hillary carries a baggage of alleged chicanery and unimaginativeness. However reality and opinion polls suggests that Hillary would enter the oval office as US' 45th President (this assumption is central to the narrative).

The 1837 inauguration of Van Buren proved less of a celebration and more of banality. His inaugural address took melancholy note of it: "In receiving from the people the sacred trust twice confided to my illustrious predecessor…I know that I cannot expect to perform the task with equal ability and success. But, I may hope that somewhat of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend upon my path." And Van Buren pledged to "tread generally in the footsteps of President Jackson." Needless to state that Buren lasted just one term, his presidency was troubled, weak and had little success to legate; the economy collapsed, there was hostility to Native Americans and compromises in securing the frontiers with Canada and Mexico. On leaving office he was re-baptised ‘Martin Van Ruin’. Clearly if history is to prevail and Hillary elected, then ‘continuity’ is her only deliverance.

Survival of Obama’s Nuclear Policy
In addition to his ‘Global Zero’ initiative, one of the most significant promises Obama made in his now less-than-lustrous, 2009 Prague speech was to "put an end to Cold War thinking" by reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US security strategy. The Cold War had ended decades earlier and while the US nuclear arsenal had decreased, little else had changed in US nuclear weapons policy. As the Commander-in-Chief he could have made meaningful changes without the agreement of Russia or Congress. He did not. Changing the deeply entrenched status quo and overcoming inertia in the US security establishment, however, demanded more than a vision; it required statesmanship, profoundly lacking, it would now seem. In some areas his administration has made nuclear matters worse. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review considered "making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or allies and partners the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons." However, it did not take this step. Instead, US policy still allows the US to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis. This suggests that nuclear weapons have legitimate uses in warfighting. In addition to this, Obama announced a US$1 trillion plan to rebuild and upgrade the US nuclear arsenal. Whatever became of the resolve to bemoan the Cold War nuclear paradigm? With such a distracted policy inheritance, Hillary’s by now well acknowledged dawdling on nuclear matters is more than likely to return to Cold War beliefs.

The No First Use Non-Starter

Obama, towards the last few months of his term in office, toyed with the idea of unilaterally declaring a No First Use (NFU) nuclear weapons policy to impel a first step towards goals of global zero. It would have been a landmark change in the US nuclear posture. America’s overwhelming conventional weapon superiority provided the logic for such a step and the probable dividend was that the other nuclear weapon states would follow suit. This, notwithstanding protests from allies who believe that “extended first use deterrence” works, despite convincing arguments of the “first use illusion” (after all, first use not only suggests a break down in deterrence but also brings with it an assurance of retaliation). To declare that the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter and if necessary only respond to the use of nuclear weapons by other countries would not only conform to the Nuclear Posture Review of 2010, but would also provide incentive for Hillary to veer away from Cold War nuclear theology and set the NFU agenda to give fresh meaning to the idea of continuity. Nevertheless, the question is really not of rationality but of whether the Hillary administration will have the resolve to take on a Republican-dominated Congress. Clearly if Cold War thinking were to prevail, then such a transformative change in posture is destined to collapse.

Test Ban and START

Seeking a UN Security Council resolution affirming a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons was Obama’s scheme to enshrine the US' pledge not to test without having to seek the Senate’s unlikely ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Then again, this runs contrary to the one trillion dollar upgrade of the nuclear arsenal. Could the state really contemplate warhead and vector enhancements without testing was the conundrum. Hillary will have to juggle this very complex issue of making large investments without a corresponding assurance of reliability, but will the nuclear establishment give her the leeway to make such compromises? Time will of course tell, but the prospect of such an event transpiring is stacked against her.

The Obama administration had noted that offering Russia a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty’s limits on deployed nuclear weapons (even though those limits do not expire until 2021) would pave the way for his successor to not let the treaty lapse. Hillary undoubtedly would have recognised this and it is reasonable that she will take steps to give legitimacy to the proposition provided Russia ‘plays ball’.

Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSOW)

The development of a new LRSOW nuclear cruise missile may have held logic for a limited nuclear strike but it also suggests a warped rationality that can only push the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. In the circumstance of it being used against a nuclear weapon state, then, the risk of retaliation and a nuclear exchange spinning out of control is very real. It is a capability Obama does not believe the US needs and by any wisdom, is worthy of cancellation. It would also fulfil his campaign promise to take US land-based missile off hair-trigger alert. Discarding the option of launching weapons-on-warning was his way of rejecting the very Cold War thinking he was calling the world to cast off. It will remain an awkward irony that Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his vision of a world without nuclear weapons if he is unable to pass down such a legacy to his successor. Yet, robust opposition to such a dramatic remodelling of the nuclear doctrine can, with some certainty, be expected to come from the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex.

US Nuclear Arsenal

There are two issues related to US' nuclear arsenal that the establishment has never really attempted to resolve. These are: firstly, why is the Pentagon embarking upon a trillion-dollar programme to modernise the Triad? Is the programme necessary (remember Hillary, in January 2016, had already dismissed the expenditure as meaningless)? And secondly, how do advances in non-nuclear weaponry affect theories of nuclear deterrence devised during the 1950s and 1960s? Does the logic of those early theories still hold, particularly in the light of overwhelming conventional and technological superiority? And will a Hillary administration be resolute enough to put ‘actions where their mouth is’ and review the trillion-dollar proposed outlay in addition to challenging the ‘word’ of Washington’s nuclear ayatollahs? The matter seems dubious given the current relationship with Russia and China’s modernisation of its nuclear arsenal. This will imply more Cold War rationality rather than less.

Future of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal

On the successful conclusion of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal on 10 October 2008, the late K Subrahmanyam, one of the early proponents of India’s independent nuclear deterrent and an architect of its nuclear doctrine, argued that the convergence of strategic interests between the two nations made such a remarkable agreement a reality, overcoming decades-long US stand on non-proliferation. What he did not mention was that it also put an end to an equally long antagonism between the two establishments. While much of the world’s approach to India in the past had been to limit its access to nuclear technology, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratories (a leading institution for nuclear weapons design during the Cold War) in a Senate hearing in 2008 put the matter in perspective. He suggested, "...it may well be that today we limit ourselves by not having full access to India’s nuclear technology developments." Given this technical standpoint and not for a moment losing sight of the commercial prospects, the element of mutuality must come as no surprise and neither must the contract for 6 Westinghouse AP 1000 nuclear reactors.

While the full potential of the civil nuclear deal is yet to be realised, there can be no two opinions on changes in bilateral strategic orientation since the deal was struck. The extent to which transformation has occurred may be judged by several episodes in the relationship which include the deletion of many high technology sanctions imposed on India since 1974. Enhancing nuclear power generation through imported uranium and purchase of new reactors is an example, while convergence of strategic perspectives holds great promise for the future. These could be measures to bring about strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific or whole hearted support to India’s admission into the UN Security Council as a permanent member and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), as a steps to buttress stability in global security and nuclear politics and commerce.

The US has become India’s largest trading partner in goods and services and the two sides have set an ambitious goal of half a trillion dollars for future trade; cooperation on counter-terrorism, information-sharing and intelligence-partnership have expanded rapidly in recent years. In military cooperation the US has become one of India’s major suppliers of arms, and the two sides have on the table agreements that were improbable a few years ago, such as the Logistic Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) or entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) or even rejecting the idea of mediating between India and Pakistan, especially on the Kashmir question. All these advances are direct dividends of the nuclear deal for it provided the strategic ambience that facilitated partnership.

About the UNSC and NSG membership, Hillary has made it amply clear that her backing for India’s full membership is comprehensive. It includes the three nuclear/chemical  and biological weapon export control regimes; the NSG, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group.

Continuity and a Retreat to Cold War Thinking: A Forecast

Much like the hapless Buren, the 45th presidency is more than likely to face an unsympathetic Congress, a hostile Pentagon and the prospect of a near certain ‘lame duck’ term. The only virtue that history may remember Hillary for is that she stayed the course laid by her predecessor. And yet even here it cannot be easy, for the geopolitical script has changed. There is, today, a far more assertive Russia than in the first decade and a more forceful China set on rewriting the rule book. In the nuclear field, the early flirtation with ending Cold War thinking is a pipe dream. So for Hillary, continuity may prove an arduous abstraction that could boomerang with more recoil than forward momentum. Perhaps her only redemption may come from building an entente cordiale with India as a balancing power.