President Barack Obama recently unveiled in Berlin a new proposal to have the United States and Russia reduce their long-range deployed nuclear weapons by roughly one-third, relative to levels under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
Arms control skeptics swiftly attacked his plan. They asserted that reducing deployed U.S and Russian strategic warheads to about 1,000 each would risk U.S. and allied security — especially when other countries are now modernizing their nuclear forces. They also claim that Russia will not take up the offer.
These critics, however, fail to make a persuasive case that Obama’s proposed cuts go too far. In fact, 1,000 deployed strategic warheads is a solid proposal. The case is compelling:
First, this strategic nuclear force allows Washington to retain a robust, reliable and even redundant nuclear deterrent. It is hard to imagine, even in the most Strangelovian war fighting scenario, that more than tens of nuclear warheads would ever wisely be employed against an adversary.
Second, what drives Russia and the United States to keep thousands of nuclear warheads are Cold War-legacy war plans based on destroying each other’s nuclear forces. These plans are entirely unrealistic — since neither side could disarm the other. They also have a circular logic: The more weapons each side possesses, the greater the case for the other to retain excess capacity. This is exactly the dynamic in which negotiated mutual cuts make sense.
Third, while Russia may not like additional cuts, given its diminished conventional military forces, long land borders and shrinking population, there is no reason to give up on the negotiability of the idea in advance. The Russians often say “no, no, no” — until they say “yes.”
Moscow may also wish to save the money required to stay at New START levels as its Soviet-era systems age and require replacement. It is at least worth testing the waters. Even with Obama’s proposed cutbacks, the United States and Russia would remain at least an order of magnitude ahead of everyone else in the size and capabilities of their nuclear forces.
Fourth, not incidentally, this accord could save Washington money too. We estimated in our book that it could save $2 billion to $3 billion a year — not enough to pay down the national debt, but real money nonetheless. These savings could also increase in subsequent years, if a new arms control deal meant Washington had to buy fewer missiles, bombers and submarines.
Fifth, critics complain that Obama wants to cut even as other countries are modernizing their nuclear forces. Nuclear powers are at different points in their modernization cycles. Consider, in a decade’s time, the Pentagon will likely be building a new bomber and seeking to extend the life of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Sixth, some cite North Korea and Iran’s recent actions to assert that Obama’s earlier nuclear cuts have been counterproductive. But North Korea broke out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty during the George W. Bush administration, and Iran began its secret nuclear program during the Reagan administration. The point is not partisan; Bush and Reagan, in fact, also pursued nuclear cuts.
But the idea that the world’s nuclear troubles can be linked to Obama’s pursuit of lower levels of nuclear arms and, ultimately, a nuclear-free world — a goal he shares with Ronald Reagan — does not hold water. (Countries like the Soviet Union, China and Pakistan built up their nuclear programs at times in the past when we were expanding ours, too — so the linkages between U.S. nuclear weapons policy and nonproliferation are not so simple.)
In fact, the Bush and Obama administrations’ success in convincing the world community to apply stronger sanctions against Iran and North Korea in response to their nuclear shenanigans was aided by the fact that both presidents could credibly argue they were trying to contain nuclear dangers by curbing the U.S. arsenal.
All that said, some arguments critical to Obama’s proposal do merit attention by the administration. A future accord, for example, should ideally include capture of tactical and reserve strategic warheads too.
In addition, it would be desirable to ask medium nuclear powers to make politically binding promises not to expand their arsenals while Moscow and Washington are reducing theirs. And any further round of arms control beyond what is envisioned in this new Berlin proposal probably will need to be multilateral.
The Obama administration’s new nuclear plans offer a pragmatic and sensible set of next steps for enhancing U.S. security — and curbing the most dangerous weapons ever invented by man.