America Needs Nuclear Weapons—and the World Needs Us to Have Them

Review: Brad Roberts, ‘The Case for Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century’

Barack Obama, Shinzo Abe
Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands after laying wreaths at the cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima / AP

Since the end of World War II, it has been axiomatic that nuclear weapons are a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy, enabling America to resist not only far-flung threats to its security but to advance its interests globally.

Upon entering office and throughout his presidency, President Barack Obama in various pronouncements made clear his intention to overturn this link between foreign and military policy. During a visit to Hiroshima, Japan in May, the president intoned that there needed to be a "moral revolution" to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Obama’s perspective coincides with an era in which the United States is fighting "small wars" against adversaries incapable of inflicting the type of catastrophic damage against the United States or its allies that guided U.S. nuclear policy in the Cold War era.

While Obama may have concluded that historical trends have removed much of the justification for U.S. nuclear forces, Brad Roberts’s timely and insightful work on the rationale for maintaining a nuclear weapons capability in the our century merits close attention as the nation prepares to elect a new commander in chief. For Roberts, "the United States is entering a period of renewed debate about nuclear deterrence."

Three factors account for this. The first is what the author terms "regional threats," such as those posed by North Korea and possibly Iran. The second is the "profound change" in Russian foreign policy since 2014 and the "significant progress" China is making in deploying secure nuclear retaliatory forces.

On Russia he writes, "Russian military planning remains centrally focused on the possibility of war with the West, while the West has only begun … to rethink the basic premises that have led it to set aside Russia as a military problem."

Finally, there is a gridlocked Congress, which has funded continued nuclear force operations but has ducked decisions on nuclear force modernization or replacement issues.

Concluding that the United States is wholly unprepared for this debate, Roberts proceeds to make the case that it is as important to assure U.S. allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East of America’s commitment to their defense (what he terms "extended deterrence") as it is to deter potential adversaries directly.

Roberts considers but quickly dismisses the idea that the challenges posed by Russia, China, or North Korea can be addressed or even mitigated by political or arms control agreements, instead turning to the central question of how the United States views its role in the world and what objectives it seeks to promote.

Roberts has not constructed a new security paradigm. In the current security environment he judges radical departures from U.S. nuclear policy ill-advised and unachievable. Rather, he writes that, "three decades after the end of the Cold War they have unique and so far irreplaceable roles in U.S. military strategy and in support of U.S. national strategy."

Roberts has taken on a complex topic and has done so with considerable skill, producing a work that is both thorough—too thorough for entirely casual readers, perhaps—and thoughtful. The book offers great value to those willing to wade into the myriad factors shaping the role that American nuclear weapons must continue to play in our foreign policy.