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Op-Ed

Traveling the Road to Nuclear Reduction

Steven Pifer

With his May 27 speech on nuclear security, Senator John McCain joined Senator Barack Obama in endorsing an American return to nuclear arms control. This is good news. Whatever the outcome of the election, the new president will pursue a policy that can reduce the nuclear threat to America, restore US leadership in the nonproliferation field, and provide a much-needed impetus to the broader bilateral relationship with Russia.

Nuclear arms control has been in limbo for six years. In negotiating the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with Moscow, the Bush administration chose flexibility in structuring US nuclear forces over limitation and predictability. It thereafter eschewed formal arms control with Russia. McCain and Obama have now indicated that they will adopt a different approach.

McCain said that “we should be prepared to enter into a new arms control agreement with Russia reflecting the nuclear reductions I will seek.” Obama stated last October that he would “work with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert, and to dramatically reduce the stockpiles of our nuclear weapons and material.”

Arms control can help the next president advance US national security interests in three important ways.

First, the next administration can sharply reduce the number of nuclear weapons capable of striking America. The 2002 treaty allows the United States and Russia each to deploy 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads. Such levels greatly exceed deterrent requirements and make little sense. America’s imposing conventional force advantages give it every reason to deemphasize nuclear weapons. The United States easily could ensure its security at a level of 1,000 strategic warheads. That level would interest Moscow if it were packaged in a legally binding treaty with appropriate ancillary limits.

Second, by proposing and negotiating major cuts in US and Russian nuclear weapons, the next administration will restore US leadership in the nonproliferation field. Washington currently seems content with its large nuclear inventory, and has sought new nuclear weapons, such as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. This undermines US efforts to dissuade other nations from acquiring nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons-related technology. Moving to slash US and Russian nuclear arsenals will give the next president’s diplomacy greater authority to press other states – and to secure help from third countries in pressing others – to forgo the nuclear path.

Third, returning to arms control is not just about arms control. It could prove key to reestablishing a better relationship with Moscow. Russia wants further strategic reductions and values a formal arms dialogue with Washington, if for no other reason than it acknowledges its place as a nuclear superpower on par with the United States. By reengaging the Russians on nuclear weapons cuts, the next president can provide a positive boost to the broader relationship, now at its lowest point since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

President Ronald Reagan skillfully made arms reductions a central element of a broader US-Soviet agenda, recognizing that the Kremlin’s interest in arms control created opportunities to pursue other questions such as human rights. The strategy worked: as Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev banned medium-range missiles and narrowed differences over strategic weapons, parallel discussions won exit permission for Soviet dissidents and secured more helpful Soviet approaches on issues such as the Middle East peace process.

Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton likewise gave arms control special attention in dealing with Moscow, producing the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty and denuclearizing the former Soviet states except Russia. Arms control progress contributed to positive relations, with significant payoffs: Russia went along with German reunification; withdrew its forces from Central Europe; lent diplomatic support to the United States during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis; and cooperated with the United States and NATO in ending the Bosnia conflict.

Linking strategic arms cuts directly to Russian concessions on other issues would probably fail. But the next administration should be able to employ deft diplomacy and a restored nuclear arms dialogue to give the broader relationship a more positive tenor and carve out space to make progress on other questions, as well as to reduce the nuclear threat.

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