Project Atom, the newly released report on America’s future nuclear posture from Washington wonks par exellence the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reads almost like a Strangelovian parody, chock full of recommendations so politically outrageous that it seems as though their intention is to self-undermine. Here is the study’s Big Idea: The United States should build a new generation of usable mini-nukes, and spread them around the globe. Our current problem, the authors believe, is that our nuclear palette is too narrow, so we need to develop “a robust set of discriminate nuclear options and forward-deployable nuclear weapons” to have on hand when the desire for a strike strikes.

Is the nuclear machine on the march again?

Amid high-wire diplomacy with Iran, souring U.S.-Russian relations, China rising, those crazy Pakistanis and Indians stuck in nuclear-era ways, and Israel with its fenced-off doomsday arsenal, it certainly feels like the nuclear “situation” on planet Earth is getting worse. The funny thing about nuclear weapons is that their mere existence demands, well, more nuclear weapons to satisfy the drive-by class of experts who believe that nukes should always be newer, more effective, and even “safer.”

Which is why, despite “success” in eliminating Iraq’s nuclear arsenal, despite budget cuts and a supposedly disarmament-minded president; and even despite powerful internal institutions working towards arms control and disarmament, we find ourselves in 2015 with the Air Force seeking to build a new long-range bomber and the Navy developing a next generation ballistic missile submarine. They are the first new mega-platforms to be built since the Cold War, and once they arrive on the scene, the drive to give them suitably new and spiffed-up warheads and missiles to go with them will be inexorable.

I won’t argue that building new nukes and delivery systems will mean curtains for us—I’ve never thought that. I’m just amazed that these programs, which are so habitual and bureaucratic and self-fulfilling, are seen by our political elites as solutions to today’s challenges when in fact they exist entirely outside of the actual worlds of diplomacy and politics and fiscal reality. Not to mention the kind of Armageddon-free future that we ought to really wish for.

Project Atom’s call for a nuclear renewal is based “deterring” potential enemies in the future. The superiority of conventional American military power, the studt concludes, will lead certain countries to seek nuclear arms as an asymmetric counter. And the argument, which has been made for the last three decades, is that our big nukes aren’t credible deterrents because they can’t really be used in a crisis. So we need lite nukes that, presumably, we would be less touchy about detonating. That logic is as flawed as it’s ever been: That somehow our purported increased willingness to use small nukes will deter aggression, when in fact there will always be a hesitance to cross nuclear threshold, regardless of the size of the nuke. No mini-nuke is going to change that political calculus. And if it does, that’s even more of an argument against mini-nukes.

When it comes to proliferation, military experts have been playing the game of “who’s next” since before Tom Lehrer penned his ode. Just this week, yet another former military “strategic advisor” and graduate student writes about Vietnam as “the next nuclear state.” The list of countries that might get the bomb is endless, and for every season and reason, there is always a Vietnam or a Brazil or Saudi Arabia or Taiwan to pull out of a hat, the fear-mongering almost like catechism to annoint the next nuclear apparatchik into the ranks of the serious.

Factually though, the record of arms control and disarmament demonstrates precisely the opposite: The number of nuclear weapons worldwide is down and continues to decline, the security and controls over what exists are better than ever, the list of countries whose nuclear ambitions and arsenal have been thwarted—Iraq, Libya, South Africa—exceeds those who are moving towards nukes.

Of course there is one glaring exception: North Korea, and that in itself demolishes the notion of a better and more usable nuclear arsenal “deterring” anything. North Korea developed nuclear weapons and possesses them today precisely because in the real world, no one wants to risk nuclear war to make crazy leaders or nations do anything. That will be the case with Putin or any other challenge in the future, which is why we need to continue to do what we are already doing—investing in a vibrant international disarmament regime and bringing worldwide nuclear materials under the best possible control, while attacking the clandestine trade.

There is, unfortunately, another example: Iraq. There, we were willing to go to war over weapons of mass destruction, willing to convince ourselves that regime change was essential because of the pursuit of nuclear weapons, and willing to promulgate in minds of the embattled that there is a two-tiered system (Israel can/Iraq can’t). But most important, we let nuclear weapons and their specter blind us to the outcome of our actions. Thank God the Bush administration didn’t possess more usable nuclear weapons after 9/11.

[Top photo from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Following photos courtesy of the Department of Defense.]

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