The US Nuclear Posture Review: Who decide its content?

The US Nuclear Posture Review: Who decide its content?

Not President Trump but a priesthood, says the writer


By Tom Sauer

The main novelty of the recent U.S. Nuclear Posture Review is the emphasis on small nuclear weapons. That is exactly the opposite of President Donald Trump’s trademark: always being and having the biggest.


The White House has not written the Nuclear Posture Review. As usual, the Nuclear Posture Review is an interagency document that has passed many bureaucratic levels in both the departments of Defense and Energy (and to a lesser extent the State Department). Of all presidents since Bill Clinton, only Barack Obama succeeded in blocking proposals coming out of his administration and shaping nuclear declaratory policy to a limited extent ― thanks to his personal interest and courage.

The president has a unique role when it comes to the moment that deterrence has failed and these weapons are supposed to be used. However, in preparing the list of (target) options, the presidential influence is marginal or nonexistent, as Janne Nolan and more recently Daniel Ellsberg have described.

U.S. nuclear weapons policy ― and that applies also to other nuclear possessor states ― is made by lower-level defense officials (both civilians and the military) and nuclear scientists, called the “nuclear priesthood.” Of course, these nuclear priests believe to a large extent in what they preach, namely nuclear deterrence.

But much more important than deterrence ideology (or theology, as it is basically a belief) ― and this is mostly not mentioned ― are the parochial interests involved: a gigantic bureaucratic complex left over from the Cold War that includes thousands of nuclear scientists in the Los Alamos National Lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories that on a permanent basis try to stay busy in developing, maintaining and building nuclear weapons.


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Tom Sauer
– is an associate professor of international politics at Universiteit Antwerpen in Belgium. He is a former BCSIA fellow at Harvard University, and he is the author of ”Nuclear Inertia: US Nuclear Weapons Policy After the Cold War,” which focuses on the Clinton administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

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