Mar 8, 2014
Security from Nuclear Attack is a State of Mind
May 30, 2012
By Eli Jacobs
Keith Payne’s recently published an op ed responding to the recent Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission Report, chaired by General Cartwright (USMC, ret). Unlike Thomas Donnelly’s recent piece, Payne does not criticize the details of the report. Instead, he focuses his ire on its statement that “[s]ecurity is mainly a state of mind, not a physical condition,” using his criticism of this stance to launch a broader critique of the report’s foundational assumptions.
Payne makes a number of interesting observations. However, he frames his argument around a straw person. The statement that “security is mainly a state of mind” does not mean, as Payne assumes, that hard security realities can be wished away. Instead, it’s a description of realities particular to nuclear weapons. Security from nuclear attack is, in fact, a state of mind. Since nuclear weapons are intended primarily to deter, what allies and adversaries think – their states of mind – will be what really matters for nuclear security.
I am sympathetic with a number of Payne’s arguments. His argument is structured by the claim that “[t]hose who… resist real solutions to real security problems often later are called ‘victims.’” And it is undoubtedly true. There are people whose interests run contrary to ours. There are a smaller number of others who simply want to kill Americans. And we can’t wish away disagreements with these people. Instead, we should materially secure ourselves and our interests, with the goal of preventing war, but the fallback of winning should war break out.
General Cartwright and the remainder of the Global Zero Commission would almost certainly agree with these statements. They may say that globalization is gradually shrinking the pool – particularly the nuclear-capable pool – of people who fall into either of these two categories. One could debate that question. But nobody here is saying that we can wish away or avoid “real solutions to real security problems.” Payne attacks a straw person.
Caught up in a duel with his imagined adversary, Payne misses a crucial reality: that security from nuclear attack is about mindset. In order to credibly extend our nuclear umbrella, we must convince allies that we have both the capability and the will to come to their aid in times of crisis. In order to credibly deter adversaries, we must convince them that they would not profit from initiating conflict that could go nuclear. The operative verb in both of these sentences is convince – an important operation in the nuclear age. Of course the reality of U.S. nuclear weapons is an important factor in shaping these perceptions. But nuclear war has not been a physical condition since 1945.
It may be the case that the report’s recommendations will both frighten allies and embolden foes. Going from 1500 to 900 deployed nuclear weapons in 10 years may signal that we’re no longer concerned with our allies’ security and that we’re willing to cave on issues of national interest. It may encourage these parties to develop and bolster, respectively, their nuclear capabilities. Keith Payne, however, makes no argument to that effect. Instead of engaging the specifics of the Global Zero Commission’s proposal, he attacks a caricature drawn through speculation on the motives of Cartwright et al. The resultant op ed clearly articulates several facts about foreign policy – facts with which none of the participants in this discussion would disagree – but fails to advance the debate about the proper size and characteristics of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.
Eli Jacobs is a research assistant for the Defense and National Security Group. The views expressed above are his own and do not reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.