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Was I the only one who noticed? Ever since the end of the Cold War (that breeding ground of massive numbers of nuclear warheads), U.S. policy toward Russia has been to get rid of as many Russian nuclear weapons as possible. Yet when the Russians recently proposed eliminating up to 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads — more than current arms-control talks have considered — the Clinton administration said no.

What’s going on here? It’s a bit like the old Abbot and Costello comedy routine, “Who’s on first” (Who being the name of a baseball player). The administration simply said it “needed” the 2,000 to 2,500 warheads that would remain if a START 3 treaty now under discussion is implemented. But Moscow wanted to go lower, to 1500. At times they have suggested going down to 1000, and Russia’s defense minister has said that by the end of the next decade, Russia could not afford to have more than 500 warheads. The United States wants cuts; so does Russia. But the U.S. doesn’t want those cuts.

It doesn’t want to go any lower because it needs these weapons for nuclear deterrence, according to U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin. But who exactly is it deterring, and how many weapons does it need for the deterrent to be credible? China, which U.S. President Bill Clinton has talked of as a “strategic partner,” has a grand total of 20 strategic warheads that could hit the U.S. Would-be nuclear powers like North Korea, Iran and Iraq would have only a handful if they did manage to join the club. Russia, which has 6,000 strategic warheads, is no longer an adversary.

During the Cold War, it was not hard to envision a conventional war in Europe escalating into nuclear conflict. But today it is difficult to spin a plausible scenario in which the U.S. and Russia would escalate hostilities into a nuclear exchange. Russia has no Warsaw Pact and few conventional forces to speak of. Yet the U.S. still bases its targeting plans on prospective Russian targets, though no one will admit it.

If the U.S. wants to reduce the Russian nuclear arsenal, why not go lower? Nuclear weapons are still important to deterrence, but if going lower gives Washington leverage to reduce Russian and Chinese stocks, it makes strategic sense to do so. You don’t have to be an anti-nuker to argue that in light of the U.S.’ current conventional military capabilities — particularly the advances in precision-guided munitions seen in the bombing of the former Yugoslavia — and the end of the Cold War, it is possible to rethink the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. Many serious strategic hardliners have concluded that we might be more secure with fewer nuclear weapons if it means fewer Russian weapons, and perhaps at some point fewer Chinese weapons. China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal, and U.S. and Russian nuclear behavior will have an impact on its ultimate shape.

In truth, the administration’s position boils down to the reality that a beleaguered Russia can no longer afford the mythology of the Cold War, while U.S. policy appears burdened by Cold War baggage. Recall that it was the Russians who insisted on a U.S. commitment to START 3 before its Duma ratified START 2. In a strategy-free White House, bureaucratic inertia often guides national-security policy. Thus, the U.S. “needs” 2,000 strategic warheads because that’s what its operations plans say. It needs them because it needs them. There is nobody home at the top when it comes to nuclear decision-making to pose the fundamental questions: Where do nuclear weapons fit into the U.S.’ defense policy? And how many does it need? At the end of the Cold War, former President George Bush unilaterally got rid of tactical nukes without any arms-control lawyers, and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev later reciprocated. If the U.S. wants to get rid of Russian nukes, why even be hung up on START 2? Why not just jump ahead and go down to 1500?

What’s more, the U.S. is contemplating building national missile defense systems. Fine. But every Russian nuke it gets rid of is one less likely to be launched, accidentally or any other way. Why has the U.S. spent some $2 billion in taxpayers’ money to denuclearize Russia? In fact, the Clinton administration has been trying to reach a “package deal” with Moscow, whereby they would agree to revision of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Washington would agree to START 3 and sweeten it with other cooperative ventures. Rejecting the Russian overture may make a deal more difficult to reach.

The U.S.’ failure to fundamentally rethink the role of nuclear weapons is one of Clinton’s grand strategic failures. By squandering the opportunity to de-emphasize nuclear weapons, Washington may inadvertently foster their revaluation. Certainly, Russia, whose conventional military forces have degraded enormously (in Chechnya, they are having trouble invading themselves) has revalued nuclear weapons. In January, Moscow published a new national-security doctrine that lowered the threshold of nuclear use. A previous doctrine statement called for use of nuclear weapons “in case of a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation.” The new one says nuclear weapons can be used “in the case of the need to repulse an armed aggression, if all other methods of resolving the crisis situation are exhausted. . . .”

Actions have consequences. The danger is that the window of opportunity for reconsidering nuclear weapons that was opened at the end of the Cold War may be closing. With it, the possibilities of capitalizing on the U.S. and Russian nuclear draw-down to lead by example and strengthen nonnuclear norms may be evaporating.

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