I wrote yesterday about President Obama’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he embraced Cold War symbolism on behalf of the West and acknowledged that Cold War tensions still exist and must be countered. Where once the president would knock Republicans for being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” he now criticizes Vladimir Putin for the mindset.
This was a welcome rhetorical adjustment. But in seeking to harness the heroism of the past for the challenges of the present and future, the president did focus on one misguided policy goal: U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reductions. It isn’t that the president is wrong when he says we may not need quite as many nukes as we have, but that he underestimates the benefits of those weapons and risks diverting attention away from much more pressing, and genuinely dangerous, perils of nuclear proliferation.
As I wrote last year when this issue surfaced, the argument in favor of nuclear reduction rests on faulty logic. We have been told time and again that one benefit of arms reduction would be the display of American leadership: other countries would be encouraged to follow our lead, and we can’t be accused (at least to the same degree) of hypocrisy when we advocate for nuclear nonproliferation abroad. This is untrue, because the U.S. has reduced its nuclear stockpile over the years and offered additional cuts, and yet China has continued over the years to increase its own stockpile and other nations have crossed the nuclear weapons threshold.
Additionally, nuclear weapons are just that–weapons. Rogue states have no “right” to those weapons just because we have them, and the U.S. has long possessed strategic advantages on the battlefield. Those advantages do not make us hypocrites; we have no moral obligation to permit those who seek to harm us to level the playing field. If we legitimize the argument for strategic parity then we would lay the groundwork for the argument that just reducing our stockpile is insufficient: if we have a thousand nukes, so should Pakistan and North Korea.
Not only does the case for cutting our stockpile ignore history, it misrepresents the concept of strategic deterrence. Once we reach a large number of nukes, could it possibly make a difference if we scrapped some of them? Well yes, actually, it could. As Georgetown’s Matthew Kroenig explains:
In an analysis of 52 countries that participated in nuclear crises from 1945 to 2001 (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), I found that the state with the greater number of warheads is over 17 times more likely to achieve its goals. In addition, there is qualitative evidence from these crises that leaders in nuclear-armed states pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe nuclear superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates directly into a geopolitical advantage. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued, “One thing Mr. Khrushchev may have in mind is that… he knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority…. He also knows that we don’t really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent… that he has to live under ours.”
Even if Russia agrees to match the president’s proposed cuts, the nuclear reductions would attenuate our advantages vis-à-vis Russia and eat into our margin of superiority against other nuclear-armed states, such as China, possibly increasing the likelihood that the United States will be challenged militarily and reducing the probability that we achieve our goals in future crises.
Which brings us to the two other weaknesses of Obama’s push for arms reduction: opportunity cost and financial cost. Russia’s nukes are far less of a threat to American interests and security than those of North Korea or Pakistan (or even China), and the same is true for those states trying to obtain nuclear weapons, such as Iran and, until recently, Syria. If the Obama administration wants Russian cooperation on the issue of nukes, it should seek not mutual reductions but instead address Russia’s enabling of Iran’s nuclear drive and protection of regimes such as that of Bashar al-Assad. If it wants to make progress on the nuclear issue while being seen to help Russia as well, it should seek not American cuts but moderation on China’s militarization or China’s support for North Korea–two troublesome nuclear states on Russia’s increasingly vulnerable eastern flank.
As for the financial cost, there is only so much money to go around. It would be costly to reduce our nuclear arsenal, which also needs costly modernization. Such modernization is much more urgent than reduction. As the Washington Post reports, we’ve been kicking the can down the road on addressing “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex,” but each delay only increases the expense of the project, which the arsenal needs “to keep it safe and reliable.” Keeping our existing nukes “safe and reliable” should take priority over dismantling part of the arsenal. The president isn’t wrong to address issues relating to our nuclear stockpile and global proliferation. He’s just focusing on the wrong ones.