Commentary Magazine


Missing the Point On Arms Control

Over the last several weeks, Rose Gottemoeller, the Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, has given speeches in Stockholm and Helsinki that, while focusing on Europe, set out the administration’s broader philosophy on arms control and verification.

This philosophy is profoundly misguided. It proceeds from the erroneous premise that arms control increases U.S. security by reducing arms all around, including (or perhaps especially) on the U.S. side. That premise, in turn, rests on the assumption that the world will be safer if democracies are no better armed than autocracies, and that the problems of security derive from arms, not from the nature of the regime that has them. In reality, arms control, even at its best, aims only at the symptoms of the problem — which is political — and it can easily damage U.S. security by reducing our ability to protect and defend ourselves and our allies.

Gottemoeller claims that, in the New START Resolution of Ratification, the Senate “placed a priority on seeking to initiate new negotiations with the Russians on nonstrategic nuclear weapons.” As a result, she says, NATO “has indicated that it is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for nonstrategic nuclear weapons . . . in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia.” She implies that the Senate called for reductions in the U.S. tactical stockpile. It did not. The Resolution calls for “an agreement . . . that would address the disparity between the tactical nuclear weapons stockpiles of the Russian Federation and of the United States.”

In other words, the Senate wanted an agreement that would reduce Russian stockpiles, not U.S. inventories. This revealing misstatement demonstrates just how eager the administration is to press ahead with further negotiations, even after Russia in 2007 suspended adherence to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. The U.S. did not acknowledge this breach until 2011, and even today, the U.S. continues to implement the Treaty voluntarily, except for the provisions that pertain to Russia specifically.

That raises the broader problem of compliance and verification, which Gottemoeller addressed in Helsinki. This was avowedly a “think piece,” and it is not inherently bad for officials to think outside the box. But in this case, the administration needs — as my colleague Baker Spring implies in a recent review of its unfocused approach to compliance — to get back in the box and pull the lid on tight. Gottemoeller’s remarks focused on the idea that arms control agreements could be verified by the public, either via social networks or distributed sensors in smartphones.

It is hard to believe that Gottemoeller has thought this through. What she is proposing is the application of the same “civil society verification” model to arms control that has distorted human rights treaties and turned them into sticks that NGOs and dictatorships use to beat up the U.S. In the arms control realm, this approach would lead to even more vigorous repression in totalitarian societies. It would also provide a ready-made justification of leaks from the U.S. — paging Bradley Manning — on the ground that the leaker was participating in a public verification exercise. It amounts to a partial outsourcing of verification, which, “when necessary,” can be partially funded by governments but where many costs will be born by others.

And that is what is most troubling of all about Gottemoeller’s remarks: they are shot through with remarks about budgetary problems. Implementation of the Open Skies Treaty is subject to “budgetary constraints.” Verification of the Vienna Document must not “impose unreasonable expenses.” Finally — and worst of all — arms control can help the U.S. “to spend our stretched defense budgets wisely.” Wrong! Arms control has no necessary connection to defense spending, because arms control addresses systems or regions, whereas the defense budget must take all security challenges into account. And if the U.S. is unwilling to spend the money necessary to verify arms control agreements, it should not enter into those agreements in the first place, because without verification, the limits they place on the U.S. run the risk of being completely one-sided.

Gottemoeller’s remarks demonstrate that the administration: is more interested in getting treaties than in verifying them; understands arms control as, in part, an exercise in the control of U.S. defense spending; and views U.S. and allied armaments as part of the security problem to be addressed via these treaties. These are all fundamental errors. Congress should demand a more serious treatment of U.S. arms control and verification efforts. It is obvious that this Administration has no intention of providing one on its own.