Four months past a “deadline” imposed by the expiration of the old START treaty and amid much fanfare, President Obama announced that he and Russian President Medvedev had agreed on a new arms control treaty. I am not as excited as most are about the treaty and much of the following might be interpreted as raining on the parade so let me begin by saying that the negotiation of this treaty is an important step. While not as big a step as I had hoped for, it is an essential step.
Whatever the actual reductions mandated by the treaty—and they are modest—it was vital to get the United States and Russia talking about nuclear weapons again. The U.S. and Russia have at least 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons and they have to lead the world in nuclear reductions. Without this first step there cannot be a second step and there are many steps between where we are today and a world free of nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration did not simply dismiss arms control as irrelevant but argued that negotiating agreements was actually counter productive, potentially creating confrontation where it would not otherwise arise. Avoid talking and let sleeping dogs lie was the philosophy. The Bush administration had the best of both worlds, from its perspective, by negotiating the nearly meaningless Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty, SORT, sometimes called the Moscow Treaty, that simply allowed each side to declare their plans for what they were going to do anyway and contained no verification provisions.
This treaty is different. The White House has released summaries of the main features of the treaty, not the full text, but it is clear this is a real treaty with real limits and real verification. This treaty and, more importantly, the process that produced it, gets the arms control train back on the track.
Even so, this treaty is a modest step. Hans Kristensen has described the numbers and their implications for the nuclear force structure. The treaty makes some modest reductions from the SORT limits but not large enough changes to make a qualitative difference in the nuclear standoff between the legacy forces of the two Cold War superpowers. (If anyone can explain to me why we and the Russians continue to need over a thousand nuclear bombs, each five to twenty five times more powerful than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima, pointed at each other, please send me an email. I want to know what the beef between us is that makes that seem proportionate.) Continue reading