April 8, 2010 | Forbes

Preemptive Disarmament

Where's realpolitik when you need it? Last September, when President Barack Obama chaired a United Nations Security Council summit themed around his dreams of a planet without nuclear weapons, French President Nicolas Sarkozy interrupted the posturing to remind the assembled worthies that “We live in the real world, not in a virtual one,” and the real world, with North Korea and Iran, includes, “two major nuclear crises.”

Clearly the message didn't get through. Still on his quest for a world without nuclear weapons, Obama now brings us a new U.S. “nuclear posture,” in which America is promising not to use nuclear weapons against any nonnuclear states that comply with the nonproliferation treaty–even if they attack the U.S. with chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction.

We can now expect an innovative surge in global production of chemical and bioweapons–which have effectively just become a cheaper way to attack the U.S. (and its allies). But there's no reason to expect a reversal in the spread of nukes. Obama's hope seems to be that if America disarms, other countries will feel safer, and out of this some communal effort will arise, fueled by gatherings such as next week's 47-nation nuclear summit in Washington, to scrap the bombs, end the wars and usher in a new era of peace.

In the real world, unfortunately, the calculus runs all the other way. Far from being a major threat, America, nuclear arsenal and all, has long been the world's greatest safeguard: a deterrent, not an accelerant to war. It is precisely the waning of American resolve that is emboldening the likes of Iran, whose leaders have been sniggering at Obama since he first took office, held out a hand and wished them happy New Year. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greeted this latest U.S. move by mocking Obama as a cowboy, a newcomer, and addressing to him such remarks as “Wait until your sweat dries and you get some experience.” Small wonder Ahmadinejad feels free to be so cavalier. All he's had to worry about on Obama's watch is endless talk, nestled in a policy of meaningless deadlines and ever-receding threats of stronger sanctions.

America's nuclear arsenal is not a problem for anyone genuinely interested in civilized norms, including aspirations of world peace. On the nuclear front, America, since dropping the bomb on Nagasaki, 65 years ago, to end World War II, has refrained from using these weapons as anything but a deterrent. America did not use them in the 1950-53 Korean War, and did not use them in Vietnam. America did not use them in Iraq, has not used them in Afghanistan and never used them, anywhere, during more than 40 years of Cold War maneuvers punctuated by hot regional conflicts to stop the expanding Soviet empire.

Not all of that can be explained by the Soviet era standoff of mutually assured destruction. America is an extraordinary case in which a nation has used massive military might not for conquest, but to protect a system that has poured its energies into commerce, creativity and the global spread of freedom and prosperity. American restraint springs from within, overseen by citizens of a democracy and members of a society in which freedom has engendered a remarkable respect for human dignity, liberty and life.

Nothing of the kind can be said of such despotic regimes as those of Syria, Libya or North Korea, or the predatory regime in Iran. Constraints on their behavior do not come from within the repressed societies they rule, but from such calculations as how much conquest and carnage they can turn to advantage and get away with. Nor is it wise to depend on rulers of such major, unfree powers as Russia and China to place world peace, or even the welfare of their citizenry, above the appetites of their regimes.

Nor do the nations of the world take their cues solely from the United States. The thrust of Obama's policy has been to increasingly abjure the role of global cop, while enrolling America as a pedestrian member of a world order that depends upon countries honoring civilized norms. In this brave new world, who will do the policing? The United Nations? The European Union? Crocodile Dundee?

The less powerful America becomes, the more heavily other factors will weigh around the globe–especially the need to counter threats that America declines to confront. Iran's rulers might feel more secure, but there's no reason that would persuade them to abandon their bomb program.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is calling Obama's new nuclear posture a “milestone.” But a milestone along what path? In fewer than eight years the U.S. has veered from a post-Sept. 11 doctrine of preemption to a doctrine of preemptive disarmament. This has been the theme not only of the new plans for nuclear downsizing, but of the deracination of language (“overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters”), the campaign to shunt acts of war into the courts, the export of U.S. legal rights to terrorists abroad, and the humiliations and betrayals dished out to such democratic allies as Britain, Israel, Poland and the Czech Republic, while enemies such as Syria and Iran are wooed with offers of “mutual respect.”

Obama's new posture aims to remove some of the old “calculated ambiguity,” as Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes it. The Administration has allowed itself various outs, with Gates noting on Tuesday that the U.S. reserves “the right” to adjust this policy as might be “warranted by the evolution and proliferation of biological weapons.” And there is debate over how much on the ground will really change. But the direction of U.S. policy is clear. Obama is introducing into global affairs a growing measure of wild uncertainty over what will replace the folding U.S. security umbrella. If anything, this will fuel a rush across the board for nuclear weapons. In particular, it will be read by malign regimes not as an inducement to disarm, but as an invitation to expand their ambitions, reach and arsenals. Most of them are not such fools as to let that opportunity go to waste.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.