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January 12, 2010

A New START on Arms Control
Posted by The Editors

The following post is by William D. Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.

Ariel Cohen's essay on the Obama administration's approach to nuclear arms reductions ("A Nonstarter on Arms Control," New York Times, January 8th) is both alarmist and misleading. It is alarmist because it suggests that even relatively small steps towards reducing the world's arsenal of over 20,000 strategic nuclear warheads could somehow put us in danger. And it is misleading because it understates the value and purpose of practical arms control measures like the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) now under negotiation between Washington and Moscow.

The bottom line with respect to arms control is that the fewer nuclear weapons there are, the safer we all will be.  In a world where Al Qaeda would like to get its hands on a nuclear weapon or the materials to make one, and where nuclear wannabes like Iran and North Korea threaten to spark a race to get the bomb in their own regions, getting rid of these devastating weapons as soon as possible should be our most urgent priority.  That's why a growing bipartisan roster of current and former presidents, prime ministers, defense and foreign ministers, and retired military officers are calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.  This shift in elite opinion began with a January 2007 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former chair of the Senate Armed Services Sam Nunn making the case for a world free of nuclear weapons, and it has snowballed ever since, for good reason.

But enough about reality. Let's get back to the arguments made by the Heritage Foundation's Ariel Cohen in his article of last week.

Cohen's first false claim is that since the START agreement expired on December 5th of last year, we have somehow been cast adrift in a world without limits on nuclear armaments. He chooses to ignore the fact that Washington and Moscow have agreed to abide by the basic terms of the START agreement while they are putting the finishing touches on a new one.  Furthermore, even if they chose not to abide by START's provisions, it is absurd to suggest that either side could gain a strategic advantage in the few weeks (or in the absolute worst case, months) it will take to hammer out a new treaty.

Cohen makes much of a recent statement by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggesting that U.S. missile defense efforts can be seen as an "aggressive" act by Moscow.  This appears to be political posturing on the part of Mr. Putin, a way to suggest that he remains a proponent of a "strong" Russia.  In any case, it is irrelevant to the discussions of the START follow-on accord.  At the negotiating level - not the rhetorical level - there is nothing to suggest that any significant limits on U.S. missile defense efforts will be part of the new treaty.  The notion of giving up missile defense in exchange for a new START arrangement is simply not on the table. To suggest otherwise is misleading in the extreme.

Cohen then turns to the question of whether a new START treaty can get the 67 votes needed get it through the Senate.  But this is about politics, not about the merits of the agreement.  While it is true that 41 Senators (40 Republicans and 1 Independent) have written to President Obama indicating that they will not support a treaty if it sacrifices efforts to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the letter ignores the fact that the U.S. already has a robust modernization program. The National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Life Extension Program (LEP) continually refurbishes the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads. Delivery systems and production facilities are also regularly modernized and refurbished.

If the Senators think modernization means building new warheads like the ill-considered Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) -  a system that has been rejected by Congress several years running as well as by the Obama administration - that would be cause for serious disagreement.  But if it means making sure that existing U.S. warheads are reliable for the foreseeable future, this issue should pose no obstacle to either the START follow-on or to the next major item on the U.S. nuclear arms control agenda, the push for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  As a well-respected scientific advisory panel known as the JASON group has indicated, current U.S. nuclear weapons will remain reliable for decades to come, thereby eliminating the need for a new warhead.  If the weapons work, there is no need to build new ones, particularly not if the ultimate goal is to get rid of them. There's no question that there could still be heated debate on the modernization issue with respect to both the START and test ban treaties, but that doesn't mean either treaty is doomed to failure.

The rest of Cohen's arguments deal in one way or another with the unsupportable notion that there is a resurgent Russian bear out there, and that it cannot be trusted and should not be cooperated with in any substantial way.  They're going to cheat, Cohen argues.  They're going to build tremendous new missiles that we won't be able to defend against, even as they hide them from us, he claims. They're going to make nuclear weapons the centerpiece of their national security strategy, says Cohen. They're going to win a new nuclear arms race (this is the ultimate subtext of Mr. Cohen's argument). This is all old Cold War thinking that bears little resemblance to the world we now live in.

Even if these overheated claims were true - which they are not - they would be arguments for a new arms control agreement, not against it.  The best way to know what the other side is doing is to conclude a legally binding, verifiable agreement for mutual reductions in nuclear weapons.  Under such an agreement, Russia could not "cheat" in a way that would shift the strategic balance. It could not build new missiles at levels that could possibly threaten the United States and its unmatched arsenal.  And Moscow would begin the process of devaluing nuclear weapons as an instrument of national security policy.

It is ironic that many of the critics of the Obama administration's efforts at concluding a new START agreement had no argument with the Bush administration's 3-page Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT), an agreement with no verification procedures.  Similarly, with respect to Mr. Cohen's concern that the U.S. will be withdrawing from a monitoring station near Russia's most important ballistic missile plant, this was already agreed to under the Bush administration, and drew little criticism from President Obama's current anti-arms control critics.  This suggests that perhaps Mr. Cohen and his colleagues are playing politics with arms control rather than assessing the Obama administration's approach on the merits.

In conclusion, new START agreement is not a "gift" to Russia as Mr. Cohen seems to suggest; it is a step that is in both America's and Russia's interest.  As the nations that possess 95% of the world's nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia need to make reductions if they are to persuade other nations to curb their nuclear aspirations or reduce their nuclear arsenals.  And given their mutual vulnerability to nuclear terrorism, Washington and Moscow should be equally committed to the goal of reducing global nuclear weapons stockpiles to the lowest possible levels, and, ultimately, to zero.  This will be a long-term process that involves many practical and verifiable steps along the way.  We need to get down to work, and not get hung up on ill-considered arguments like those presented in Ariel Cohen's essay.


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I think they have an interest in using arms control to bring the US nuclear arsenal down to their new level rather than live in a world in which the United States has overwhelming nuclear superiority.

It is a good posting. I like it. It's pretty much impressive.


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