The Dangerous Allure of Arms Control; Negotiate without a Clear Baseline of What Forces Are Needed?

Article excerpt


The Ringwraiths of arms control are again with us, returned from well-deserved obscurity, and back in the saddle in Washington. Through public statements and private preparations the Obama administration is signaling clearly that its approach to Russia will center on Cold War-era arms control precepts and objectives.

Although the Washington-Moscow relationship has, at Moscow's behest, become increasingly contentious and unpleasant, arms control is an odd and backward-looking way to try to improve relations and ameliorate Russia's objectionable international conduct. A long Cold War history demonstrates that arms control tends to make the relationship even more adversarial than it needs to be, concentrates attention on peripheral issues, and fails to deliver the security that supposedly is its central objective.

The Obama arms control agenda reflects the longstanding, attractive and woefully simplistic notion that ever-lower numbers of Russian and American nuclear weapons will create a more stable strategic relationship, diminishing the threat of nuclear war. Arms controllers, relying on this superficial analysis for decades, argued that reducing weapons levels would not harm U.S. security because nuclear war was so destructive it was simply unthinkable, a concept known as automatic deterrence. Later, they adopted a slightly more nuanced position, acknowledging the need for a small nuclear force that could survive a first strike, thus providing a second strike capability. These flawed theories are back from the dead.

Accordingly, we now see suggestions for U.S. weapons levels that have more to do with numerology than national security. Moreover, the Obama approach appears to ignore the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which represented a substantial change in managing strategic relations between America and Russia, a change also reflected in U.S. development of strategic missile defense capabilities. Ironically, the treaty actually reflected the reduced role of nuclear weapons in American strategy and enhanced roles for long-range, precision-guided conventional weapons that the Obama administration now risks reversing by returning to the arms-control approach of the SALT (strategic arms limitations) and START (strategic arms reduction) models.

What should we do instead, and on what should Congress insist before the negotiations proceed beyond the point of no return?

First, we must understand that agreed-upon levels of nuclear weapons address only the most visible areas of military competition, not others that actually may be more important. This has been a central fallacy of arms control since the post-World War I naval arms negotiations, ignoring as it does wide and important variances between the United States and Russia, such as weapons production capabilities, levels of tactical nuclear weapons, intelligence assets, and total national economic strength. …