Detour on Abolition Road

May 1, 2010

Richard Burt, the US head of the group Global Zero, recently offered some reassurances to anti-nuclear activists. “Despite the scoffing of hardliner cynics,” he said in the April 13 Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Obama … has not abandoned his long-term goal of global zero”—that is, a nuke-free world.

Ambassador Burt, a Reagan-era arms negotiator, made that remark in the course of lauding President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review and New START arms accord with Russia, both unveiled in April.

Call us cynical, but we believe there is in fact much cause for scoffing, if not cheering. President Obama might still cling to his no-nukes vision, as Burt reports. Yet all signs are the NPR and New START did little of a concrete nature to propel us further down this Utopian path. Not now, at any rate.

Start with the basic US deterrent. It was left more or less intact. More-radical disarmament schemes fizzled, and not by accident. Indeed, former Pentagon chief James R. Schlesinger said, “We owe a substantial debt to the Department of Defense and to the military commands for fending off some of the wilder views within the Administration.”

The truth of that statement is underscored by an accounting of what survived:

  • A robust US deterrent for the indefinite future. Obama’s nuclear cuts were modest. The 2002 Moscow Treaty imposed a limit of 2,200 warheads on both sides. New START goes to 1,550. Under revised counting rules, however, actual US cuts might total only 265 weapons.
  • A traditional “triad.” The Pentagon will continue to field a force of land-based ICBMs, submarine-based missiles, and bombers, albeit in smaller form. New START allows 800 launchers—50 fewer than the US fields today—700 of which may be “deployed.”
  • A workable “first-use” policy. The NPR rejected a push by liberal arms controllers to adopt a strict “no-first-use” stance, limiting use of nukes to deterrence. Obama accepted that nuclear weapons may have uses other than deterrence, though he narrowed the range of those uses.
  • Nuclear weapons on alert. The Obama Administration concluded that the current arrangement—ICBMs on alert, submarine-launched weapons at sea, bombers not on alert—should be maintained “for the present.”
  • Extended deterrence. Washington fully reaffirmed its willingness to extend its nuclear umbrella to allies and friends, to the point of keeping a store of US theater nuclear weapons in Europe and having them ready to deploy elsewhere.

In the end, Administration decisions changed little—a point affirmed by disappointed activists. As David Culp of the Friends Committee on National Legislation lamented: “We had hoped for bolder steps, but nuclear weapons supporters still control the Pentagon.”

The global zero vision suffered in other areas, too. Neither the NPR nor the New START agreement does anything to reduce sizeable stockpiles of tactical nuclear weapons. These have been estimated to number 2,000 for Russia and 500 or so for the United States.

The short-range weapons were not even addressed in New START. Russia refuses to discuss limits on these weapons, because Moscow views them as counters to US and even Chinese conventional power. As for the US, tampering with its own stockpile could spark political fights in the NATO alliance.

Then there is the matter of nuclear aspirants—most particularly, Iran, North Korea, and various al Qaeda franchises.

The NPR gave top priority to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to unsavory regimes and terrorists. As the Administration sees it, serious disarmament by the nuclear-armed nations could induce other nations to abjure such weapons themselves.

The counterargument is summed up succinctly by Rep. Michael R. Turner of Ohio, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces:

“Underpinning the President’s drive for US nuclear reductions appears to be an expectation that others will follow. There is no historical basis for this assumption. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has reduced its nuclear arsenal by nearly 80 percent, but such cuts have not curbed Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Nor have they led to reductions in Pakistan’s, India’s, or China’s nuclear arms.”

The Administration sought to build momentum at a 47-nation anti-nuclear confab in Washington in April and at a regular review conference of the Nonproliferation Treaty this month. If these events even registered in Tehran or Pyongyang, it was not evident.

There was at least one development that could, in time, lead to serious disarmament—at least on the US side. It was the decision to reject development of a new warhead, as sought by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, as a way to ensure the safety, security, and reliability of the nation’s old and deteriorating stockpile.

The NPR argued that the arsenal will be maintained through “life-extension” programs, backed by increased spending on the nation’s weapons laboratories. It is a move sure to spark a fight in the Senate, where Obama needs 67 votes to ratify New START.

In a joint statement on April 6, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl, both Arizona Republicans, warned, “We are concerned about how the NPR will affect the nuclear modernization program that is required by law at the time the START follow-on agreement is submitted to the Senate.”

Few would claim President Obama’s nuclear decisions ended the drive for global nuclear abolition. The Administration and Congressional supporters say this year’s action is “only a first step.”

In the NPR, the Administration outlines goals of future reductions—deeper cuts in longer-range missiles, reductions in tactical weapons, and elimination of many of the spare warheads currently stored in warehouses. Succeeding in these areas is certain to be difficult, but not out of the question.

President Obama’s nuclear decisions turned out to be very different from his rhetoric. For all the sound and fury surrounding the NPR and New START, they do not represent a revolutionary or radical change. For that, we may give thanks.