NATO held its breath on November 15th, when two missiles fired in Ukraine struck a Polish town and killed two people. There had long been a fear that Russia might attack Poland because weapons and supplies from NATO were being held there before being given to the Ukranians to use in their war. The phrase “World War III” began trending on Twitter, and it looked like a serious escalation in the war in Ukraine was possible.
It turned out that Russia did not attack Poland. In fact the missiles had been fired by Ukrainian forces, and was an accident. People all over the world breathed a sigh of relief, but the episode again demonstrated how close we always are to war between nuclear powers.
This scary moment came only weeks after the Pentagon released its National Defense Strategy here in the US. Part of that strategic review of US military policy is the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). In this document, the military lays out its nuclear policy and how it intends to pursue certain goals in the future. At exactly the moment when the threat of nuclear war has never been more real, the military has reaffirmed nuclear weapons as a core component of its strategy.
In the NPR, the military states that it has three goals with nuclear weapons: deter strategic attacks, assure allies and partners, and achieve US objectives if deterrence fails. It’s the last of those three objectives that is the most worrisome (although any objective which relies on nuclear weapons is not good). The third objective basically states that the United States is prepared to use nuclear weapons if the President feels that the circumstances call for it.
There was a time only a few years ago when such policy was not the only possible outcome. President Barack Obama gave a speech in 2009 where he stated that his administration would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy – an administration of which current President Joe Biden was a member. Obama also spoke about the need for a world without nuclear weapons, although he did almost nothing to bring that world about during his term.
The closest President Obama came to fulfilling the promise of that speech was his consideration of a no-first-use policy. This would prevent the President from using nuclear weapons except in response to a nuclear attack from an adversary first. Ultimately, White House officials convinced him not to pursue the policy.
President Obama’s decision to refuse no-first-use was a major blow to the efforts to end the threat of nuclear war. He was perceived as a visionary leader who imagined a world that could be different from the one we currently lived in, even if he often governed as a traditional politician. Still, he had the perception that would have allowed him to seriously put forth no-first-use as a policy that took the world at least one step back from the nuclear brink. No-first-use still maintains the underlying precepts of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and suggests that the United States wouldn’t attack first, but it would hit back with enough firepower to utterly destroy its attacker.
The new NPR not only rejects no-first-use, but it states that nuclear weapons need greater integration with the other pillars of the national security apparatus, which was why it was released at the same time as the other parts of the National Defense Review. Nuclear weapons are going to be even more critical to defense policy going forward.
With Russia rattling its nuclear saber at times about its use of weapons should NATO get directly involved in Ukraine, the inability for the United States and Iran to restart the agreement which paused the latter’s nuclear program, and China continuing its nuclear modernization program, it looks like the greatest threat to humanity is only growing more pronounced. Missiles hitting Poland was a too-close-for-comfort reminder that a small problem can grow into a much bigger threat. It won’t be the last.