America Still Needs Nukes — And A Better Foreign Policy

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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While the world watches U.S. military efforts in Iraq, seeking to provide temporary relief for Christians and other religious minorities persecuted by the Islamist group ISIS, it provides an opportunity to consider just how different and many the threats are around the globe. Because of this, the U.S. must develop a foreign policy and defense strategy that is up to the task.

ISIS is as radical and committed in its immediate goal to create an Islamic Caliphate as it is brutal and unyielding in its tactics to make it happen. But it certainly doesn’t have the military capability to compete with the U.S. Other threats do.

Consider then that the National Defense Panel just a couple weeks ago released a report touting, among other things, the wisdom in the U.S. keeping a strong nuclear deterrent.

Not only does the report argue for the utility of nuclear weapons, it describes them as playing a “cornerstone role in broader U.S. defense strategy” and as being a matter of “existential importance.” Specifically, the report supports the Pentagon’s commitment to keeping a triad of nuclear weapons in order to maintain the most flexible, adaptable, and difficult-to-destroy force possible. It’s going to require investment to service and improve the triad, since the bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles that comprise it are many decades old and are in need of modernization and in some cases replacement.

Astute Americans aware of the spending and debt crisis may wonder why the U.S. even maintains these Cold War-era weapons that seem to be of no use dealing with the threat of Islamists without nuclear weapons (yet). The short answer is they’re not the only threat in town.

Russia is spending vast resources to improve its nuclear arsenal and is relying more on nuclear weapons in its military strategy. And in addition to its ramping up of its military including its nukes, the NDP notes that “Russia’s recent military intervention in Crimea and its continued attempts to destabilize Ukraine signal Moscow is prepared to use force and coercion to pursue its interests, including in ways that violate well-established international norms.” This is the kind of language that comes out of a bipartisan report. I think it’s safe to say the average American understands that Russia has done more than signal.

It has proven again and again its willingness to violate agreements and treaties. Recall that the administration recently confessed it knows Moscow has been breaking the INF Treaty, although, it appears it has no intention of doing anything more than “signal” that it knows, bringing, as Angelo Codevilla recently penned, “international contempt on America.” Russia has, in turn, “signaled” it intends to continue on its merry way, building a defensive and offensive missile force that suits its own interests as it sees them.

China also has taken advantage of the last 6 years of the U.S. defense planners’ colossal confusion. It has taken to bullying its neighbors (our allies) in Asia and continues to claim international waters as its own. Then, proving it is serious, it has busied itself with building a massive missile fleet to keep those it wants out of its sphere of influence. Specifically, it is developing missiles with the capability to target U.S. carriers and just a couple weeks ago tested an anti-satellite weapon. In addition to the American economy’s reliance on the Navy defending free access to the world’s oceans, the U.S. depends more on space than any other country on the planet, and as such, the American military, economy, and daily life are dependent on the U.S. having the ability to defend our satellites against these exact weapons.

And there’s nuclear-capable North Korea’s shockingly brutal and seemingly insane regime that still holds the title “world’s largest dealer in ballistic missiles.” One of its partners in the illicit missile business is none other than Iran, a regime that flouts sanctions in its committed effort to achieve a nuclear capability and successful ICBM force.

The threats facing the U.S. are many and they are different. The enemy of the day is ISIS, but the U.S. must do the hard work of deterring a whole range of foes that don’t take time off while the U.S. conducts humanitarian missions. Our nuclear force isn’t cheap, but it’s still less than 4 percent of the current defense budget. As Michaela Dodge pointed out, Americans spend more money on their pets than they do on nuclear weapons.

Americans are by nature war-averse, and that’s a good thing.  This means we must do the necessary work to deter conflicts with deft diplomacy, intelligence that takes an unvarnished look at what motivates our foes, and have the gumption to enforce the commitments, treaties, and threats we carefully make. Only then will we determine world events on our own terms rather than constantly reacting to the whims of bullies and tyrants.