War Stories

Nukes Are Easy

Obama’s deal on weapons could win Russia’s cooperation on tougher issues later.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

It’s odd that in the “post-Cold War era,” with all the common interests and urgent problems that the United States and Russia could discuss, the issue on which the two presidents lavished the greatest attention and achieved the most substantive progress at their summit in Moscow this week was the hoariest track from the Cold War playbook—strategic nuclear arms talks.

Then again, while it’s odd, it’s not so surprising.

Even during their heyday, in the 1970s and ‘80s, the chief benefit of SALT, START, INF, and the assorted other nuclear negotiations wasn’t so much their specific outcomes as that they gave the superpowers something to talk about—a forum in which their diplomats could engage one another, exchange information, probe and sometimes expand the limits of cooperation—in an era when it was impossible to talk fruitfully about anything else.

To some degree, after the gloom-ridden years of George W. Bush (which exacerbated Vladimir Putin’s nationalistic paranoia), we’re in that spot again. If there really is a “reset button” in U.S.-Russian relations, nuclear arms talks provide a familiar vocabulary—and, even more, a very high chance of success—to get the process under way.

It would have been a grave mistake if President Barack Obama had come to Moscow with an agenda that focused solely on strategic arms talks. One lesson learned from the bad old days: If nukes are all the two powers can talk about, relations very quickly devolve into fetishism.

Back then, at the height of the Cold War, many diplomats, politicians, think-tank denizens, and journalists immersed themselves so thoroughly in the esoterica of “nuclear-exchange” calculations, missile throw-weight ratios, and “hard target kill” probabilities that they came to confuse this bizarre, abstract world for the real one.

Dip into the archives of such journals as Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, International Security, even the op-ed pages of major newspapers from that era, and you will find serious-minded officials and scholars spinning elaborate, quantitative (and, therefore, presumptively scientific) scenarios in which the Soviet premier launches a nuclear attack against the United States—hurling thousands of nuclear warheads, which explode with the force of billions of tons of dynamite (thousands of megatons) and spread vast plumes of radioactive fallout, killing tens of millions of Americans—because the calculations suggest that his most potent nuclear warheads could destroy all our land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles in a surprise first strike.

Such scenarios ignored a few basic facts: that U.S. submarines, prowling under the ocean’s surface and thus invulnerable to attack, would still hold thousands of nuclear warheads, which could be fired against the USSR in a devastating retaliatory blow; that some of the land-based missiles and bombers would survive the first strike as well; and that—above all else—the whole mathematical exercise simply did not reflect the way that any leader of an established power, including Russia, has ever thought about the use of force.

Certain calculations suggested that during the early 1980s, the Soviets did possess this theoretical “first-strike capability”—then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger warned of a “window of vulnerability.” Yet there is no evidence whatsoever—in the since-declassified Russian archives or anyplace else—that this “edge” altered the balance of power or emboldened the Soviets to take steps or issue threats that they otherwise might not have.

One can go further. In the late 1960s, Soviet and Chinese armies confronted each other, and nearly went to war, over a territorial dispute along the Yulu River. Yet the Kremlin leaders backed off because Mao Zedong possessed a mere handful of nuclear weapons and they feared that he might launch them in response to an invasion.

This is the thing about nuclear weapons: It takes just a few of them to give their possessor the power to deter an attack. Beyond that, the math darts off into abstractions. (For instance, many are apprehensive about a nuclear-armed North Korea or Iran, not because they expect either country to achieve “nuclear superiority” but simply because they might be able to resist pressure, as China did in the late ‘60s, by brandishing a mere handful of them.)

And yet, in today’s Wall Street Journal, nearly two decades after this Cold War remnant should have dropped out of the public discourse, Keith B. Payne argues in an op-ed piece that the arms accord outlined by Obama and Dmitry Medvedev—which calls for each side to reduce the number of its warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 and the number of its missile-launchers to between 500 and 1,100—”has the potential to compromise U.S. security” because having “very low numbers of launchers would make the U.S. more vulnerable to destabilizing first-strike dangers.”

Within strategic circles, Payne is a well-known extremist. In 1980, he co-authored an article in Foreign Policy titled “Victory Is Possible,” by which he meant victory in a nuclear war is possible. In it, he wrote that “an intelligent United States offensive [nuclear] strategy, wedded to homeland defenses, should reduce U.S. casualties to approximately 20 million … a level compatible with national survival and recovery.” (As Gen. Buck Turgidson, the George C. Scott character in Dr. Strangelove, put it, “I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed up, but 10-20 million tops, depending on the breaks.”)

His article from 29 years ago might be waved off as youthful ravings (he was in his 20s at the time and an acolyte of Herman Kahn), but as recently as 2001, Payne wrote a transition paper for the incoming Bush administration suggesting that if the United States went to war against Iraq again, and if Saddam Hussein hid his mobile Scud launchers, as he’d done in the 1991 Gulf War, “suspected deployment areas might be subjected to multiple nuclear strikes.”

(Shortly after Bush took office, Payne was named deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces policy—the Pentagon’s top civilian assigned to the development, procurement, planning, and possible use of nuclear weapons—though he was a bit too much even for Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department and didn’t last long.)

But Payne is not alone in his pre-emptive volleys against the U.S.-Russian arms accord (which, it should be noted, is far from finalized). John Bolton, a more prominent former Bush official, is protesting that the numbers of missile-launchers that Obama and Medvedev have put on the table are “shockingly low.”

The Republican right can be expected to pick up on this line of attack—not because they agree with, or fully understand, its strategic implications. (However thuggish Putin might be, does anyone really believe that he would like to launch a nuclear strike against the United States or that he would venture such a loony risk?) The real agenda is to stave off a broader renewed détente with Russia, to keep up the pressure along its borders (especially in Georgia), and to forestall progress toward a U.S.-Russian policy to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons (which might make an attack on Iran unnecessary).

It’s a good thing, then, that Obama and Medvedev sketched out an agenda well beyond nuclear arms. They created bilateral commissions on a wide range of issues, to be chaired by their respective Cabinet secretaries or ministers. They revived a panel of military cooperation, to be headed by the armed forces’ chiefs of staff. And according to several reports, Medvedev told Obama, during one of their talks, that he has come to recognize the growing threat from Iran and is ready to cooperate on sanctions, a step that Russia has not taken in the past.

Whether these commissions, panels, or declared intentions amount to anything, who can say? Nor is it always the case that merely talking reduces tensions. Sometimes, when two sides (or two people) get to know each other better, tensions heighten; they see more clearly how much their interests conflict.

At least Obama seems to be stepping into this arena with eyes wide open. In all his remarks about dealing with Russia, the key word is interests. He doesn’t fantasize about peering into Putin’s soul (like Bush); it’s inconceivable that Putin or Medvedev could con him by whispering in his ear about God’s wishes (as Leonid Brezhnev did with Jimmy Carter, when he said, on the eve of SALT II talks, that God would never forgive them if they failed); nor does he confuse cordial personal relations with diplomatic breakthroughs (as Bush 41 and Bill Clinton were sometimes inclined to do).

Obama has said that he won’t paper over differences but, rather, focus on pursuing common interests. The question, which will emerge in the coming months, is just what those common interests are and whether pursuing them yields a safer world.