• SHARE

Last May, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a treaty that mandates deep cuts in both countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals. Last week, the U.S. Senate ratified the accord. While any nuclear arms reductions are to be welcomed, this document is troubling. It is only the outline of a treaty and its effect may prove just as light. Arms control “lite” could undermine the entire arms-control regime by undermining its legitimacy. Arms control has to be real, verifiable and irreversible if it is to be meaningful.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty obliges the United States and Russia to slash their nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads in a decade. On paper, that is an impressive accomplishment; the U.S. currently has about 6,000 warheads, Russia 5,500. The cuts reduce the arsenals to their lowest level in half a century. Although there were hopes that both countries’ legislatures would take up the agreement simultaneously, the Russian Duma has yet to consider it. After U.S. Senate ratification, it goes to Mr. Bush, who is expected to sign the treaty. There are hopes that Russian legislators will pass it in a few weeks or, at the latest, in time for the U.S.-Russia summit that is scheduled for May. There are concerns, however, that the fallout from a possible U.S. attack on Iraq could slow ratification in Russia.

In addition to the deep cuts, the treaty is unlike other strategic arms accords in another important respect. The actual document is merely three pages long, unlike the thousand-page treaties of the past. Although when Mr. Bush took office he promised to implement deep cuts in the U.S. arsenal, he had not wanted a formal treaty at all. He was (and continues to be) deeply skeptical of arms control agreements, believing that they tie the U.S. without binding other signatories that cannot be trusted. As the Iraqi case demonstrates, they spark endless debate about verification without necessarily achieving their main purpose. Nevertheless, Mr. Putin insisted on a formal agreement, and Mr. Bush conceded the point.

Still, there is even less to this accord than meets the eye. The agreement does not require either country to destroy warheads or the missiles and bombers that carry them. Nonoperational weapons can be kept in storage and redeployed at fairly short notice. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an American nonprofit organization, estimates that the U.S. could keep 2,100 nuclear weapons on “active reserve,” which means they would be ready for relatively quick redeployment, 4,900 weapons that would take longer to reactivate, and there would be components for another 5,000 weapons. Worse still, there are no verification mechanisms to confirm that even the initial reductions occur.

Deactivating weapons is not the same as destroying them. Not only can they be redeployed quickly, as the NRDC suggests, but maintaining the components of the arsenals requires that they be safeguarded. That is a very real problem in Russia. Moscow was quick to agree to the strategic arms reductions because Russia could not afford the vast arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union. Securing those nuclear weapons will be no less expensive. The Group of Seven has already spent billions of dollars in an effort to destroy Russian nuclear materials, but that is a mere drop in the bucket. As the world grows increasingly concerned about the danger of terrorists getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction, the decision to forgo destruction of such weapons seems short-sighted and dangerous.

This agreement raises questions about the utility of arms control generally. The failure to make these reductions verifiable and irreversible will give other nations the freedom to question their own commitment to arms control. If the two leading nuclear powers can commit to “paper” reductions, other governments are likely to do the same. They will demand the right to deactivate rather than destroy their own arsenals, just as the U.S. and Russia have done.

At the same time, the reluctance to destroy weapons will make it harder to make the case for nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation more generally. Not only do the nuclear powers continue to argue for “international apartheid” on this question, but they are not even willing to reduce, much less eliminate, their arsenals as demanded by the initial Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty bargain. This is a dangerous and counterproductive precedent, the glaring inequality of which becomes even more obvious as the United Nations tries to cope with the prospect of nuclear proliferation in Iraq, Iran and North Korea, as well as with the established cases of India and Pakistan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW