Deterrence and Bouncing Checks

James Perkovich writes in the National Interest that president Obama's plan for a Nuclear Zero may even be more attractive after the Crimea.  While conventional wisdom holds that America's retreat in the Crimea may induce other countries to arm themselves with nuclear weapons out of doubt for the American deterrent, Perkovich says that the crisis shows how subtly prescient Obama's policy is. Aren't we glad there are no sabers to rattle? he asks. For saber rattling must eventually mean the sabers will be crossed; just because deterrence worked in the past doesn't mean it will work in the future. He writes:

unlike many of his opponents, the president and his supporters remember that deterrence is not fail-proof—otherwise it would not work. The weapons deter because they could be used, and any use could escalate to mass destruction. Even if deterrence is stable between the U.S. and Russia, it may have a higher probability of failure between less experienced pairs or, more ominously, groups of nuclear-armed states. As the eminent nuclear strategist Sir Lawrence Freedman put it several years ago: “The case for abolition…is that it is hard to believe that the past 60 years of self-restraint can continue for the next 60 years.”

But at least one group of allies may disagree with the case for abolition. The New York Times writes that Japanese are worried about the US response in Crimea.

When President Bill Clinton signed a 1994 agreement promising to "respect" the territorial integrity of Ukraine if it gave up its nuclear weapons, there was little thought then of how that obscure diplomatic pact - called the Budapest Memorandum - might affect the long-running defense partnership between the United States and Japan.

But now, as American officials have distanced themselves from the Budapest Memorandum in light of Russia's takeover of Crimea, calling promises made in Budapest "nonbinding," the United States is being forced at the same time to make reassurances in Asia. Japanese officials, a senior American military official said, "keep asking, 'Are you going to do the same thing to us when something happens?'

The other group of people who seem to disagree with Perkovich are the Russians. The Washington Free Beacon reports that the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) warned Congress that Russia has been engaged in a nuclear buildup for more than a decade.  If the nukes are so useless then why is Putin building more of them even as Obama builds down?

“Russia has maintained and continues to modernize their strategic deterrent capability,” Adm. Cecil Haney, the Stratcom commander told the House Armed Services Committee. ...

State Department cables sent to Washington earlier this year included dire warnings that Russia is vastly increasing its nuclear arsenal under policies similar to those Moscow followed during the Soviet era.

The cables, according to officials familiar with them, also stated that the Russian strategic nuclear forces buildup appears aimed at achieving nuclear superiority over the United States and not nuclear parity.

The nuclear modernization has been “continuous” and includes adding fixed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and mobile ICBMs, along with a new class of strategic missile submarines, Haney said in testimony....

By contrast, Haney testified to the committee that U.S. nuclear forces are in urgent need of modernization to update aging nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and support and production infrastructure, most of which were made decades ago.

"Under budget sequestration, which could be re-imposed in 2016, U.S. nuclear force modernization will be undermined," the Free Beacon added.