Two events this week underscore the Obama Administration’s schizophrenic thinking about the nuclear threat to the United States. The first was the signing of the new START treaty which re-established the centrality of the U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear relationship in global affairs. The second was the just-ended Washington summit on nuclear security which emphasized the growing threat of nuclear terrorism. The administration’s position is that these two events are directed towards the same end, the drive to “Global Zero.” In fact, they are likely to do just the opposite. The administration is spending precious time and resources limiting threats that do not matter and not enough time and effort on the threats that do matter.
Prior to the Obama Administration’s drive for a new START treaty, strategic nuclear weapons were on their way to irrelevance, at least politically, and despite Russia’s efforts to inject them into the U.S.-Russian relationship. The reason for this was that the Bush Administration decided to almost completely ignore Russian strategic forces. As President Bush repeatedly pointed out, the United States and Russia were not enemies so like the situation with Great Britain and France, we don’t worry about their nuclear weapons. Although President Obama makes the same claim, he decided that Russian nuclear weapons were a problem that had to be addressed. The claim of the need to live up to U.S. and Russian obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty made little sense given the fact that over the past decade both countries had reduced their inventories by thousands of weapons.
The new START treaty will result in extremely modest reductions in strategic nuclear weapons. More significantly, it makes the remaining strategic weapons (as well as the tactical nuclear weapons which may be the subject of the next round of negotiations) more valuable, at least to the Russians. This will make it more difficult to negotiate an agreement to reduce these weapons. There are already indications that Russia will want the United States to pay an extraordinarily high price for any additional nuclear reductions possibly including limits on U.S. missile defenses and conventional global strike capabilities, a Russian vote in NATO’s councils, influence over U.S. arms sales to regional allies in the Middle and Far East and a veto over how the U.S. chooses to deal with nuclear rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. This all before we attempt to bring the other declared nuclear powers into the negotiations. So the price goes up, negotiations become more complicated and the chance of arriving at new agreements goes down.
Moreover, as the President himself has pointed out, the real threat today is not from Russian nuclear weapons but from nuclear-armed terrorists and rogue states. Russia is supposed to be an ally in the effort to corral loose nuclear materials and prevent proliferation by Iran. But it is providing Iran with nuclear reactors and critical skills. In effect, when it comes to proliferation, Russia is part of the problem. It matters much less that Russia agrees to reduce its strategic arsenal by a few hundred weapons than that it continues to condone and even support Iran’s illegal proliferation activities. But the administration cannot be too harsh with Russia regarding the latter because it wants more of the former.
Here is but one example of the consequences of the administration’s schizophrenic approach to nuclear arms control. One way the administration is trying to devalue nuclear weapons in the eyes of proliferators is by giving negative security assurances. That is, we will use only conventional weapons against them if they abide by their nuclear obligations. But Russia is concerned about U.S. conventional superiority and wants limits on precisely those capabilities we will employ instead of nuclear weapons. So the administration’s arms control approach to Russia could undermine efforts to deal with the real threat.
The administration’s approach to nuclear arms control is nothing less than schizophrenic. As a result, it will find itself increasingly trapped between its policies on strategic arms control and countering nuclear proliferation. Unfortunately, only one of the two threats is real.
Find Archived Articles: