The Iran deal is the biggest nuclear story of the decade. Yet most Americans are paying little attention. Even the 70th anniversary of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan stirred little interest. Today, nuclear weapons are pretty much “out of sight, out of mind.”
That’s quite a change from the Cold War era, when an entire generation of Americans was raised on worrying about “duck and cover.”
Even as China, India, and others have reenergized their nuclear weapon programs, the United States refuses to acknowledge this development. US nuclear “forgetting” contrasts with the nuclear learning going on in China, North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan, Israel, and others. This is a significant strategic asymmetry.
We have only ourselves to blame for this imbalance. The United States has a conscious policy of devaluing the importance of nuclear arms. President Obama embraced the notion of pushing for “global zero” as a cornerstone of American defense strategy. There is little to show for this effort aside from the controversial deal with Iran. The administration insists that the agreement will foreclose the nuclear option for the regime in Tehran. Others disagree.
But forget about the Iran deal. There is much, much more going on in global nuclear competition—and it’s receiving scant attention from U.S. policymakers as well as the American public.
Exhibit A: the attention not being paid to tracking Russian nuclear activities. Consider the 1987 treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF). In 2014 the U.S. State Department reported that Russia had rung up numerous violations of that accord. Yet there is little discussion of how to bring Moscow back into compliance. In an in-depth assessment of Russian behavior, strategic analyst Michaela Dodge recently concluded that “the treaty has outlived its utility and is no longer in the U.S. interest.”
Yet there is almost no debate or discussion in Washington of the viability of existing arms control treaties, even as the administration presses to seal the Iran deal. If the U.S. can’t manage the Russians, how can we expect Washington to do any better holding Tehran accountable?
Finally, there ought to be real debate about nuclear strategy. The world is way past outdated notions like massive retaliation and mutually assured destruction, which dominated Cold War strategy debates.
There is an argument that what the U.S. really needs is a “protect and defend” strategy. This would include a mix of strategic offensive and defense capabilities (nuclear weapons and missile defense), as well as strong conventional arms to deter and constrain all the bad actors in the world today. Others can suggest options other than “global zero” or the “protect and defend” strategy, but Americans can never afford to forget about debating the role of strategic arms in our nation’s defense.
Originally published in Forbes.