Arms race to test Obama

Posted Sept. 16, 2009, at 7:47 p.m.

If the nuclear arms race were to be measured on a 100-yard football field, the United States, Russia, China and all responsible nuclear powers are huddling on their own 25 yard line — with the clock ticking down as the last quarter of the “end-game” unfolds.

If the goal-line is an end-state that leads to zero nuclear weapons, they may be even farther away — in part because it’s not at all clear that the key parties agree on the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, declarations and treaties notwithstanding.

But if there is a real chance of reaching that goal, first outlined by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at their historic 1986 summit in Reykjavik, James Goodby and Sidney Drell have supplied a valuable playbook for scoring the ultimate touchdown.

Goodby and Drell, working at Stanford’s Hoover Institution with former Secretary of State George Shultz, have tackled one of the most complex stages of an eventual drawdown in a new paper, “A World Without Nuclear Weapons: End-State Issues.” Namely, to define the scale and parameters of a “latent” or residual nuclear infrastructure and limited numbers of weapons needed to prevent a breakout by a renegade state as the main powers would take final steps to zero.

With credit to Jonathan Schell and his earlier focus on this issue, Goodby and Drell ask what would be a realistic and limited nuclear arsenal to be reconstituted in the face of a new threat.

Skeptics of the “zero” option, not to mention opponents of arms control, are bound to label such efforts idealistic. Yet unless one is completely fatalistic and prepared to accept nuclear war as inevitable, their effort is balanced and realistic in addressing the delicate period just before the end-state (zero).

Hundreds of complicated steps remain before this stage would be within reach. One of the first, and most crucial, is the work now going on in Washington and Moscow to renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — by Dec. 5.

The United States and Russia possess nearly 95 percent of all nuclear weapons. For that reason alone, facing other nations, especially regional powers with “nuclear-capable” neighbors, Washington and Moscow need to lead, set an example, end the hypocrisy of saying “trust us, though we don’t trust you.”

Under the proposed new treaty, the total of all types of long-range delivery vehicles — land-based and submarine-based missiles and bombers — would be limited to 500 to 1,100, down from 1,600 now allowed. The U.S. once had 32,000 warheads, then 10,500 with START (I) in 1991.

With three months remaining, two critical factors are a top-to-bottom Pentagon review and the fluid state of U.S.-Russian relations.

Powerful constituencies, in the defense industry, Congress and the military, have conflicting views on how to proceed — in dealing with sharp drawdowns but also lowering alert levels, targeting and deterrence policy.

Russian leaders continue to support deep cuts. But they also are pressing for Western retreat on other issues such as missile defense in Eastern Europe and NATO membership for former satellite states.

Along with tough decisions soon on Afghanistan, the START renewal and the “nuclear posture review” amounts to a critical test of President Obama’s leadership in foreign affairs.

Obama has tailor-made political cover. It was Ronald Reagan, the darling of conservatives, who pressed for “zero” in the first place, saying with Gorbachev that “a nuclear war cannot be won and it must never be fought.”

Furthermore, Reagan’s Secretary of State Shultz has been joined by other Republican luminaries, notably Henry Kissinger, in the “zero option” campaign.

Many other hurdles remain on the path to “zero,” which Obama embraced in his April speech in Prague: acceptance of strict verification procedures, the need for international consensus for tougher diplomatic action, to name but two.

Progress toward zero can go nowhere without more success in reducing or resolving political conflicts in the Middle East, Korea and South Asia in particular. Yet the zero option could serve as a spur to more effective diplomacy. Major powers, so the argument goes, will have increasingly less tolerance for continued outbursts and instability if they are working hard to lower the nuclear threshold and increase global security.

The urgency of tackling this issue is apparent every day — in North Korean nuclear tests, in Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment, in the certain efforts of suicidal terrorists to gain access to such weapons.

“The nuclear genie can never be stuffed back into the bottle,” Goodby and Drell observe. “Humanity will have to live with the potential of its reappearance in the form of bombs. But minimizing the dangers is entirely possible.”

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He may be reached at hill207@juno.com.

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