Key Takeaways from Colin Powell’s Interview with the Asahi Shimbun

In an interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun last week, former Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at-length about an array of nuclear issues, ranging from the value of nuclear weapons, to unilateral nuclear US reductions, to the threats posed by the Chinese, North Korean, and Iranian nuclear programs. Below are five key takeaways from the interview:

1. Powell views nuclear weapons as militarily useless, but acknowledges that they do possess some political value.

Powell dismissed the idea that nuclear weapons have any military value, explaining that, because of their uniquely horrific nature, they will never be employed by any “sane leader.” Moreover, he argues that the leaders of North Korea and Iran, for all of their eccentricities, fall firmly within that camp, and would not want to “commit suicide” by using a nuclear weapon. However, Powell did acknowledge that the weapons are of some political worth, citing the deterrent value that nuclear capabilities provide to states like North Korea.

2. Powell is not worried about the threat posed by Chinese nuclear modernization.

Powell also sought to downplay the threat posed by upgrades to the PRC’s nuclear capabilities. Here, it may be worthwhile to quote Powell in full:

“[The PRC’s nuclear] capability is rather modest. So, they're modernizing their weapons system. But, we modernize ours all the time! I want them to modernize, if the weapons become safer and more reliable.”

So, count Powell among those skeptical of the threat posed by China’s nuclear arsenal. He is certainly not alone in this regard. As I pointed out in a previous blog post, the US nuclear arsenal currently holds a major quantitative advantage over its Chinese counterpart. Moreover, given China’s traditional emphasis on a nuclear doctrine of “minimal deterrence,” that advantage is unlikely to be substantively diminished at any point in the near future, even after a 1/3 reduction in the US and Russia deployed strategic arsenals as proposed by President Obama.

3. Powell believes that the US can make further bilateral nuclear reductions with Russia without formal arms control talks.

Powell suggested that the US can make joint nuclear cuts with Russia without crafting a formal follow-up treaty to New START, asserting that “…we can reduce nuclear weapons with having a negotiation [with Russia]!” Presumably, this would allow President Obama to make cuts to the US nuclear arsenal without a formally-binding treaty, a step that congressional Republicans seem determined to block, despite the fact that these kinds of reductions have a historical precedent.

4. Powell believes that further reductions to the size of the US arsenal would send a powerful message of US commitment to the global nonproliferation regime.

Powell denied that nuclear weapons possess any military value, but did acknowledge that they continue to have a degree of political utility. When questioned on how he would change this, he argued that the US can reduce the political value of these weapons by cutting the size of its arsenal and hopefully bolstering the legitimacy of the global nonproliferation regime by “[convincing] the world that we are heading to lower numbers, and maybe the day when there are none.”

5. Powell is not concerned about the possibility of Japan “going nuclear.”

The notion that Japan might one day “go nuclear,” be it in response to a rising China or North Korean provocations, is one that emerges every so often in the East Asian security discourse. Of course, these concerns are not without merit. Japan is typically classified as a “nuclear threshold state” – a state with strong civilian nuclear capabilities that could be rapidly converted into military capacities, if the need arose. Powell, however, downplayed the possibility of Japan developing a nuclear weapons capability of its own, citing the fact that he had yet to hear a major Japanese political or military official seriously propose such a program, as well as his belief that nuclear weapons would be of very little utility to Japan.