Last week, Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig, no stranger to taking provocative stances on nuclear issues, stepped into the fray surrounding President’s Obama speech in Berlin. In an article for Foreign Policy, he argued that the nuclear reductions proposed by the President “could potentially be highly damaging to US interests.” Though Kroenig has undoubtedly put more thought into his criticism than can be said of most of the President’s knee-jerk detractors, his argument against further cuts to the US arsenal fails to stand up to scrutiny.
Like many opponents of nuclear reductions, Kroenig uses the specter of rival nuclear powers, particularly Russia and China, to justify his opposition to cuts in the US arsenal. For instance, he claims that the President’s proposed cuts would “attenuate our advantages vis-à-vis Russia” and counsels that the United States should not reduce below the New START level of 1,550 warheads, which Washington must do by 2018. In making this claim, he appears to have forgotten the fact that, though the US currentlyhas more deployed strategic warheads than Russia, the New START treaty imposes equal limits on both the United States and Russia. This raises the question of how, exactly, pushing that equilibrium down from 1,550 to 1,000 would harm US interests.
Which brings us to China. It is technically true, as Kroenig argues, that further nuclear reductions would diminish the quantitative advantage of the US arsenal vis-à-vis China. The important question to ask here, however, is whether that advantage would be diminished in any qualitative (i.e. meaningful) way. Currently, China’s total arsenal is composed of 250 warheads, which would place the PRC at a significant numerical disadvantage even if the US reduced its deployed arsenal to 1,000 (and don’t forget the additional hundreds of warheads the United States will continue to retain in reserve). Of course, China’s arsenal is likely to undergo some expansion in the coming decades, but given Beijing’s traditional nuclear doctrine (which has historically stressed the concept of “minimal deterrence”), the prospect of the PRC achieving nuclear parity with the US at any point in the foreseeable future is based on conjecture rather than fact. Moreover, further US and Russian nuclear weapons reductions are a necessary condition to eventually bring China into the arms control process.
Kroenig also rejects the notion that President Obama’s proposed reductions would help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, arguing that previous US arsenal cuts have not “contributed to any breakthroughs on important nonproliferation problems.” However, this contention ignores the positive effect that the NPT regime has had in stemming the tide of global nuclear proliferation, and the key role that US actions play in maintaining this regime’s legitimacy. In 1963 – five years before the NPT was signed – President Kennedy predicted that, by 1975, there may be as many as 20 nuclear weapons states. That frightful vision has not come to pass, and the NPT is undoubtedly a major reason why. However, the legitimacy of the NPT is based, in large part, on a bargain between the five recognized nuclear weapons states (the US, Russia, UK, France, China), and non-nuclear weapons states: namely, that the former will take steps to rid themselves of nuclear weapons if the latter vow never to pursue them. By further reducing the size of its nuclear arsenal, the US would demonstrate its commitment to the NPT, and help to ensure that the treaty continues to remain an effective component of the global nonproliferation regime. The notion of a linkage between US actions and the continued viability of the NPT is not a particularly radical notion, either – in 2009, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States asserted that “some other nations may not show the nuclear restraint the United States desires or support nonproliferation efforts if the nuclear weapon states take no further agreed steps to decrease their reliance on nuclear arms.”
Finally, Kroenig takes issue with the argument that nuclear reductions would lead to cost savings for the US, citing the short-term expenditures inherent in “pulling missiles out of silos…dismantling retired warheads, and decommissioning nuclear facilities.” Kroenig is right to point out that, in the short term, some nuclear reductions might require cost increases. However, in doing this, he disregards the long-term savings that would be brought about by a smaller arsenal and the near-term savings that further reductions would bring by reducing the need to build as many new replacement nuclear delivery systems. For instance, according to a recent estimate, the United States could save nearly $20 billion over the next decade alone by reducing our fleet of ballistic missile submarines from 12 to 8. Further reductions could also reduce the planned scope of warhead life extension programs, which would entail significant cost savings.
Kroenig’s central argument is that America’s nuclear overkill is a vital asset. It is not. The President’s proposed reductions would pose no threat to US national security, would enhance the legitimacy of the global nonproliferation regime, and would result in long-term financial savings for the US. In the end, the arsenal’s overkill is precisely that – overkill.