The New York Times editorializes today (in a piece actually labeled “Editorial,” I should note) that the United States has too many nukes, because the Cold War is over. I have no objection to the Times voicing its support for reducing our supply of Things That Go Boom–the Times’s predictability is oddly comforting–but I have a couple of questions about their reasoning. Here is the Times:
For strategic and budgetary reasons, [Obama and his nuclear experts] need to further reduce the number of deployed weapons and the number kept in reserve. If this country can wean itself from its own dependence, it will be safer and will have more credibility in its efforts to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and others.
That is the argument: We must not be dependent on our own nuclear weapons. But the rest of the editorial doesn’t seem to back this up. It argues we will be safer with fewer tactical nukes because it will reduce the chance of an unplanned exchange of weapons we never intend to use anyway. But it doesn’t explain why our dependence on our own weapons is a problem. This is the type of phrasing commonly used to suggest one of two things: either that reducing our own dependence makes us more likely to strike a conciliatory tone with our enemies, or that we would be more likely to depend on others. The editorialists do not tell us on which other country’s nukes we should rely, rather than our own. And the other countries mentioned in the editorial–Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China–have all adopted tougher lines when we have sought that conciliatory tone.
Which brings me to the other problem with the editorial. “Many experts believe the United States can easily go down to 1,000 warheads in total — deployed and stored — without jeopardizing security. We agree,” write the editors. That may well be true, but the Times’s logic claimed we would gain credibility with others if we cut our nuclear supply. Let’s say we cut it to 1,000–a number the Times indicates it will be satisfied with for at least five minutes before it hectors the administration to cut more. What will such credibility get us? Let me put it this way: Why wouldn’t the reaction of Iran, North Korea, and China (Russia has more than 1,000, so they’re exempted from this hypothetical) decide that 1,000 is a great target, and that they shouldn’t have to stop producing nukes until they, too, hit that number?
The evidence seems to support my pessimism on this. After all, if reducing our nuclear stockpile would convince other countries to reduce theirs (or at least stop expanding), why, as the Times admits, has China continued expanding its nuclear weapons program after we have already agreed to reduce our count more than once?
Furthermore, is it really true that, as the Times claims, China is “the only major power expanding its arsenal”? I suppose we can argue about what constitutes a “major power,” but it seems North Korea may have still been conducting nuclear tests in 2010, and they may have been on behalf of Iran (evidence suggests the West thinks one was probably for Iran and one was probably their own, which would make the most sense).
The IAEA–not exactly Iran’s biggest or most determined critic–now admits Iran is probably building a nuclear weapons program, surprising no one. That sure sounds like an expansion. Why wasn’t Iran convinced by our New START treaty with Russia?
The fact remains that the Times is either offering us unsubstantiated theories (dependence on our own capabilities is bad) or already disproved assertions (our agreement to reduce our stockpile encourages others to do the same). What the Times wants is for us to reduce our supply no matter what other countries do. That’s fine–they’re certainly free to keep saying so. But the more they try to justify their plans, the weaker their arguments sound.