The Obama Administration has a troubling habit of pursuing policies that make sense individually but when taken together are at the very best contradictory and at the worst produce dysfunction. In the Middle East the White House says to some despots that they must go but are silent with respect to the fate of others, many of whom are behaving particularly badly. On Afghanistan the administration bounces between counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism strategies on an almost annual cycle. In the sphere of national economics, I challenge anyone to rationalize the administration’s pursuit of stimulus spending to create jobs with its newfound zeal for the “big deal” on spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit.
Another example is the administration’s positions on strategic nuclear arms control and missile defenses. The Obama Administration came to office determined to move towards a world without nuclear weapons, the so-called Global Zero. It also wanted to “reset” the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Towards these two ends the administration negotiated a New START with Moscow. The details of the treaty are not all that important; in fact, New START contributed very little to arms control and actually allows Russia to increase the number of deployed nuclear warheads and to retain potentially destabilizing multi-warhead ICBMs. What it does do is make the strategic nuclear balance between Russia and the United States a central aspect of both bilateral relations and international security.
The “renuclearization” of U.S.-Russian relations would not be that bad were it only a temporary sidestep on the path to Global Zero. But for Russia, nuclear weapons are central to its national security and status in the world. Russia is a state on the brink of failure with an economy propped up by high oil prices, a declining population, a corrupt government and an obsolescing conventional military. No nuke means no power and influence for the Kremlin.
But what the Obama Administration gives it also seems to take away with the other hand, or at least that is how the Russian leadership sees it. On coming into office, the new President rejected his predecessor’s plan to deploy advanced missile defenses in Europe; this was the Third Site concept. Instead, the administration proposed deployment of a Phased Adaptive Architecture (PAA) based in large part on the deployment at sea and eventually on land of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system with increasingly capable variants of the Standard Missile 3 interceptor. The purpose of the PAA is to counter missiles deployed by rogue states such as Iran and North Korea thereby rendering them less valuable to those countries and possibly even coaxing them into stopping the pursuit of nuclear capabilities. The PAA envisions deployments within the next few years of the first missile defense sites in southeast Europe with the most capable radars and interceptors being deployable as soon as 2020.
Russia has complained continuously and vociferously about the PAA. Just last week in Washington Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated publicly Russian concerns that U.S. missile defenses are a threat to his country’s national security. Washington insists that planned deployments are not directed at Russian missiles and that if located in places such as southeast Europe and northwest Asia could not intercept Russian long-range ballistic missiles. However Moscow has a point, well two actually. First, more advanced versions of the Standard Missile 3 would have potential against long-range ballistic missiles. While there are no plans to deploy such interceptors where they could engage Russian long-range ballistic missiles, these missile defenses are mobile, and hence could be moved to places from which they could be more effective. The second and even more important point is that Russia sees missile defenses in Europe and the Far East as a threat to their theater nuclear forces. Russia believes it needs a large and capable theater nuclear force posture to make up for its inferiority in modern conventional military forces. Russia’s leaders have threatened to deploy more nuclear weapons if the U.S. continues forward with its plans for the PAA.
So this is how the administration manages to pursue two security policies each of which makes sense in their own right but which are mutually incompatible. The White House wants strategic arms reductions both to ease tensions with Russia and in order to make progress towards Global Zero. It developed the PAA so as to counter the threat from rogue states’ ballistic missiles without having to rely more on our own nuclear weapons. Deployment of highly capable missile defenses scares the Russians and makes them hold on more tightly to their nuclear weapons. But not deploying missile defenses means that the U.S. will have to rely more on its nuclear forces to deter Iran and North Korea. Thus, two of the Obama Administration’s core security policies collide.
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