Great Power Competition and Nuclear Strategy
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Good morning everyone, and thank you for the kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be here.
Any discussion of U.S. nuclear posture should begin with the the Administration’s release earlier this year of our Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR is a foundational document – an important part of how our government thinks through, and provides public clarity about, nuclear weapons and their role in U.S. national security policy. Its conclusions are deeply rooted in longstanding U.S. government nuclear thought and strategy, for it reflects a continuum of American strategic thinking that seeks to adjust our nuclear posture in response to evolving threats in the international security environment. The program it outlines is designed to preserve the efficacy and reliability of our nuclear force so that it can continue to protect U.S. national security – and to advance international peace and security – by deterring aggression, underpinning our defense posture, and anchoring the global network of alliance relationships that has kept the peace and helped ensure generations of prosperity and Great Power stability since the end of the Second World War.
We can certainly talk more about the details of the NPR’s conclusions, if you like, during our discussion this afternoon. Since many of you may already have read the NPR or may be otherwise familiar with some of its conclusions, however, let me open the aperture a bit and offer some thoughts to help frame our discussion of its details. In particular, let me say a few words about the broader context into which this NPR can be understood to fit.
Our nuclear posture, of course, has changed a great deal over the years, with the evolution of relevant technology and with changes in the threats facing the U.S. homeland, U.S. forces, and our allies and partners around the world. But this is precisely as it should be, for deterring aggression requires tailoring one’s posture to the nature of the threat and the adversaries that one wishes to deter.
So no one should be surprised that each NPR takes a slightly different approach depending upon each administration’s assessment of the prevailing security environment. Unfortunately, the current environment has been worsening – rather than improving. The 2018 NPR notes a “rapid deterioration in the threat environment” since the previous NPR in 2010. We did not seek this deterioration, nor do we welcome it, nor have U.S. actions caused it. Nevertheless, it is this administration’s responsibility to respond to this deterioration so as to be sure we can meet the security threats that confront us. U.S. thinking needs to evolve in light of the fact that we now clearly face a world not characterized by the “benign nuclear environment and more amicable Great Power relations” that were perceived by our predecessors earlier in the post-Cold War era.
This audience doesn’t need me to describe all the many ways in which things have been worsening for years, but it is noteworthy that the recent National Defense Strategy highlights the fact that as a result of aggressive moves by Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, “[i]nter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is the primary concern in U.S. national security.”
There is, in other words, a return to the importance of competitive strategy in U.S. national security discourse. I say “a return,” because we let things slide for quite a while. After the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War, our country and its democratic and capitalist “operating system” stood seemingly unchallenged, feeling happily vindicated after decades of struggle against ideologized tyrannies of both the Right and the Left that had each depicted themselves as the special, destined recipients of History’s favor. And U.S. leaders seem to have imagined themselves to be, in a sense, at a neo-Hegelian end of history. Was it not obvious that the world’s most important ideological and great power conflicts had just resolved themselves, and conclusively, in our favor?
Accordingly, we relaxed, assuming that our strategic environment would thereafter remain enduringly benign. To be sure, there remained occasional, isolated islands of competitive thinkers in our public policy community who warned everyone that we should not assume a permanent absence of “near-peer” competitors. Yet for the most part, U.S. thinkers and leaders seem to have concluded that the big, world-historical answers had all been found.
This did not mean that we did not have very important things to do, of course, and the United States was soon devoting itself to what one might perhaps describe as “clean-up” tasks at the end of History – preventing ethnic cleansing, moving against the occasional tin-pot proliferator, and taking up arms against murderous networks of non-state actor terrorists around the world. This was all vital stuff, particularly our counterattack against al Qaeda after 9/11. In terms of Great Power competition, however, we seem to have thought that the important things were over, and that the future would ultimately be a happy and inevitable cosmopolitan one of globalized neoliberalism. We flattered ourselves that foreign powers really wanted to be like us, and that their peoples’ gradual advancement and aspirations would in time inevitably produce a middle-class, democratic culture very much like our own, and alongside which we would be able to live happily ever after. Since this was where History was taking everyone anyway, we should not resist these countries’ rise, but rather embrace it.
Accordingly, in our national security policies at that time, we basically took a holiday from competitive strategy. Competitive international thinking was for years, in fact, regarded by our culture’s bien pensants as something deeply problematic and maladaptive – an approach that was more likely to create problems than to help us address them. This was an era in which the conventional wisdom held that U.S. competitive thinking was actually dangerous, because it would set in motion a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in which talking in strategically competitive terms about foreign countries might provoke competitive behavior from them — whereas otherwise they would in time obviously embrace our own assumptions about a benignly cooperative world. Even when other powers acted competitively towards us, it was thus said that we needed carefully to refrain from acting competitively in return. In effect, we should ignore their provocations, for if we could all just ride out the occasional bellicose hiccup on their road to modernization and liberalization, sweeping historical dynamics would eventually solve the problem for us. Competitive strategy was thus at the very least unfashionable, and, in many circles, considered retrograde and dangerous – and it duly became something of a lost art in the higher reaches of the U.S. policy community, and our intellectual muscles atrophied.
But other powers did not take a strategic holiday. Indeed, the very “unipolar moment” that led us into such complacency was for them a goad and a catalyst. Our exalted position was, in their eyes, a powerful challenge to improve their own competitive strategy – whether regionally, in Pyongyang and Tehran, or more globally, in Moscow and Beijing, though in all cases with the United States as the principal target of competitive attentions.
Those governments have spent the last quarter-century developing their capacity to challenge the benign strategic environment that we in the United States persuaded ourselves was here to stay. This is not particularly good news, of course – neither for the United States directly, nor for the U.S.-led international order that has helped ensure global stability and prosperity for many decades. But it is good news, at least, that the United States has now finally come around to recognizing these competitive challenges for what they are, for such recognition is the essential first step towards meeting then.
The National Security Strategy calls out “the contest for power” as “[a] central continuity in history,” and warns about challengers – specifically, “the revisionist powers of China and Russia, the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and transnational threat organizations” – that “are actively competing against the United States and our allies and partners.”
Similarly, the National Defense Strategy observes that “[t]he central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security” today is “the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition.” “It is increasingly clear,” that document states, “that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Indeed, the NDS notes that “[b]oth revisionist powers and rogue regimes are competing [with the United States] across all dimensions of power.”
None of this is to say that we in the United States look forward to a more competitive relationship with such powers – for we certainly do not. It would be far better if such countries did not continue to adhere to the regionally or globally revisionist agendas that create instability, and we look forward to the day when they recalibrate their approaches in more peaceable ways.
Nor does it mean that there are no areas of shared interest upon which we can work with powers such as China and Russia – for there are. There are both competitive and cooperative aspects of our relationships with them, and our willingness now to acknowledge and act in response to their competitive policies does not mean that we are uninterested in cooperation where we do share critical interests. Nor do we believe it impossible to strike deals even with proliferator regimes such as North Korea and Iran, though it should be clear by now that we aim to hold such deals to high standards.
So that’s the prism through which I encourage you to understand our new Nuclear Posture Review. In addressing the United Nations on September 19, 2017, the President said, “We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife. We are guided by outcomes, not ideology. We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.”
In the United States we are now finally willing to acknowledge the existence of powerful competitive dynamics in the world today – ones that too many Americans complacently ignored while competitor regimes devised and implemented strategies against us. This rebirth of great power competition is the dynamic through which one should understand our approach to the U.S. nuclear posture and national security.
But while we feel it necessary to be hard-headed about such things, we are also optimistic. There is little chance of taking competitive dynamics entirely out of global politics any time soon, if indeed at all. Nevertheless, we believe that with an honest and realistic approach to the challenges that face the international community – coupled with a willingness to explore solutions without being unduly constrained by conventional wisdoms that may have outlived their usefulness – there is still much we can do. A tough but open-minded approach can still offer opportunities:
- First, It offers opportunities for cooperation on shared interests between the major powers, much as the United States and the Soviet Union were able to collaborate in drafting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) half a century ago notwithstanding the dangerous bipolar nuclear rivalry between them at the time;
- Second, it offers opportunities to leverage diplomatic, economic, and military pressure in response to provocative behavior by malign actors into better long-term arrangements to reduce threats and promote stability – as we are working to do with North Korea and with Iran;
- Third, it offers opportunities to leverage such pressures in response to violations of arms control and nonproliferation agreements to end the threats presented by such violations, deter future noncompliance, and make further agreements possible by dispelling the shadow that cheating casts upon the entire negotiating enterprise – as we are working to do in response to Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Syria’s murderous contempt for the Chemical Weapons Convention.
- And fourth, it offers opportunities to move beyond sterile and superficial conventional wisdoms in pursuit of very long-term goals such as the global elimination of weapons of mass destruction – as we are attempting to do with our “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament” (CCND) initiative, which sidesteps demonstrably unproductive traditional approaches in favor of trying to find better ways to address the underlying problems of instability, insecurity, and mistrust that impede disarmament progress.
I thank you for your interest and the invitation to be here today. I would be happy to take your questions.