Fresh off his failure to defeat the New START treaty, last week Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) organized a letter signed by 40 other Republican Senators warning President Obama that he must consult with Congress before altering nuclear weapons guidance to allow for deeper reductions below New START levels.
Senator Kyl is right that the Senate should be consulted on these issues, as it was throughout the formulation of the Nuclear Posture Review and during the New START negotiations. However, the letter is a transparent attempt to obstruct the President’s authority to issue new guidance and engage in future negotiations with the Russians.
Last year Republicans on the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee succeeded in attaching an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill that would have placed limitations on the President’s ability to negotiate and implement reductions in U.S. nuclear forces below New START levels. A significantly watered down version of the provision is included in the final version of the FY 2011 defense bill. Kyl’s letter likely presages continued Republican efforts to impose legislative constraints on the President’s flexibility to determine appropriate U.S. force levels during the upcoming mark ups of the FY 2012 Defense Authorization Bill.
Kyl of course will not support further reductions under any circumstances. But a key near term goal for the administration and its supporters should be to encourage other GOP signatories of the letter, including some Senators who supported New START, to keep an open mind about the next steps in U.S. nuclear policy. Such outreach must include substantive responses to the age-old canards raised in the letter…
Lower Is Better
The letter warns that “very low levels of nuclear forces, such as the arbitrary levels of 500 or 1000 warheads per side advocated by some in the international arms control community, would have important and as yet unknown consequences for nuclear stability.” Yet what country would not be deterred at such levels? And if a country couldn’t be deterred by a U.S. arsenal of 500-1000 nuclear weapons, what logic presumes that they would be deterred by a much larger U.S. arsenal of 5,000 weapons? As James Acton outlines in his new Aldephi Paper, deterrence and stability can be maintained at lower levels of nuclear weapons.
It’s a MAD world
Though hard to swallow, the fact remains that the United States is, and will continue to be, vulnerable to nuclear attack so long as nuclear weapons exist. Kyl and the nuclear hawks propose to escape this vulnerability by building new nuclear weapons, developing impenetrable missile defenses, threatening to use nuclear weapons against a wide array of threats, and maintaining sufficient nuclear forces to launch a disarming first strike against any potential adversary (or in the case of Russia at least feign such a capability).
But a nuclear posture premised on primacy at the expense of tried and true measures to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons would endanger U.S. national security. For example, the quest to devise new and better ways to negate an adversary’s deterrent could increase their incentive to strike first in a crisis, thereby undermining deterrence. That’s one of the reasons the New START agreement is so important. The reductions it requires (though modest) and the predictability and stability that it engenders steps us further away from the nuclear precipice.
Such a posture is also useless against 21st century threats such as the threat of nuclear terrorism. In fact, it would likely weaken the international cooperation we need to rein in rogue states such as Iran and North Korea and prevent nuclear terrorism. It could also prompt additional states to acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves against a potential U.S. attack, thereby undermining nonproliferation. On the flip side, we can continue to assure our allies that we remain committed to their security in ways that are far more credible than retaining excessive numbers of nuclear weapons.
Congress should be consulted, but
Future U.S. arms control negotiators should retain maximum flexibility to negotiate treaty provisions in the best interests of the United States. The Senate will have an opportunity to vote any treaty up or down.
The ongoing crisis in Japan is a chilling illustration of the old adage that what can go wrong, will go wrong. The same logic applies to nuclear weapons, only the devastation would be orders of magnitude larger than what we’re seeing Japan. As Robert McNamara put it in the Academy Award winning documentary The Fog of War, the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.
In light of this danger the U.S. should be reorienting its nuclear policy to reflect the fact that changing technologic, strategic, and geopolitical circumstances have made it possible and essential for the U.S. to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Posture Review, New START agreement, Nuclear Security Summit, and most recent NPT Review Conference are all steps in the right direction.
Now its time to take the next steps.