The United States and Russia failed to reach a new arms control agreement as the START 1 pact expired earlier this month. The two governments remain committed to a new agreement; reportedly only a few issues kept negotiators from meeting the Dec. 5 deadline.
It is important that they succeed. Any treaty that cuts the number of nuclear weapons is a good one, as is the signal it will send to the rest of the world: The possessors of the two largest nuclear stockpiles are making good on their commitment to nuclear disarmament, which will provide momentum for broader multilateral efforts when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon) begins next year.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as START) was signed in 1991 by then U.S. President George H.W. Bush and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty seized on the opportunities created by the end of the Cold War and obliged the two governments to reduce their strategic arsenals by around 25 percent to some 6,000 warheads apiece. That moment passed, however, and nuclear arms control languished.
Much of the blame belongs on the shoulders of U.S. national security hawks, who believed that Russia, their country’s strategic rival, would be forced by economic reasons to shrink its nuclear arsenal. Concerned about a rising China, they were opposed to any restraints on the ability of the U.S. to modernize its nuclear forces or accept limits that might endanger its primacy. These strategists did not see massive U.S. conventional superiority as a means of safeguarding their country, nor did they believe that international agreements could be effective against adversaries.
That mentality shaped the thinking of the George W. Bush administration, which concluded in 2002 the Treaty of Moscow with former Russian President Vladimir Putin. That agreement further cut the number of operationally deployed warheads in each country to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012. Significantly, that treaty does not require either country to destroy its weapons; rather it can put them on the shelf for use in the future, a hedge that made the deal a sham in the eyes of many arms control advocates.
While the world no longer lives in the shadow of mutually assured destruction, the threat of a nuclear attack, planned or by accident, using a single warhead or culminating in an exchange of weapons, remains. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, efforts have been made to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — primarily but not only nuclear — but comparatively little attention has been focused on the other part of the nuclear weapons issue, the nuclear arsenals of nuclear weapon states. Disarmament, required by Article 6 of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, has been largely ignored.
That is a mistake, since many nonnuclear weapon states have been reluctant to take up nonproliferation, arguing that it is not their problem or that they are not going to pursue nonproliferation unless nuclear weapon states get serious about shrinking and eliminating their own nuclear arsenals. To overcome this logic, U.S. President Barack Obama made his Prague speech, which articulated the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Mr. Obama believes that ambition is realizable, eventually. He also understands the linkage between disarmament and nonproliferation: There will not be buy-in on the latter without a genuine commitment to and progress on the former.
Thus, in an attempt to move closer to that nuclear-free world, Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are moving forward with their arms talks. The deal that negotiators are trying to conclude was outlined in meetings between the two men. They agreed to cut nuclear arsenals to between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads and between 500 and 1,100 delivery vehicles, a substantial reduction from the current maximums of 2,200 warheads and 1,600 launch vehicles. The failure of the two sides to finish by the Dec. 5 deadline was apparently caused by the sheer abundance of technical issues to be dealt with in a short period of time rather than disagreements over substantive issues.
Critics will complain that the cuts should be deeper, that tactical nuclear weapons are excluded, that there are no limits on defensive systems, and that there should be more intrusive monitoring and verification. But the deal will cut strategic stockpiles and provide a big boost to global nonproliferation efforts in the runup to the RevCon.
Equally important, this step by the possessors of the world’s two biggest nuclear stockpiles will increase the pressure on other nuclear weapon states to begin thinking about their roles in the disarmament process. China in particular, which is expanding and modernizing its nuclear capabilities, has insisted that it is only a bystander in this effort. That argument had some appeal when China’s nuclear weapons were a mere fraction of that of the superpowers; that is no longer the case. China has a formidable nuclear force. It, along with other nuclear weapon states, must now actively engage the rest of the world to help realize a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.
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