War Stories

Don’t Waste Your Time on Russian-American Nuke Talks, Mr. President

Nuclear-arms accords have little effect on the chances of nuclear war.

US President Barack Obama speaks during meetings alongside Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Singapore. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev 

As the United States and Russia near completion of a new strategic arms treaty, and as President Barack Obama envisions a further round of negotiations to cut the stockpiles of short-range nuclear missiles and of nuclear warheads locked in storage bins, I would offer one bit of advice: Don’t spend so much time and effort on nuclear-arms talks; better to focus on more important matters.

This may seem perverse. What could be more important than reducing the chances of nuclear war?

The thing is, the substance of nuclear-arms accords has little effect on the prospect of nuclear war.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, arms control negotiations were a surrogate for other kinds of diplomacy. They were useful not so much because of the treaties they produced but, rather, because they provided a forum for the two sides to talk about something—to engage each other, probe intentions, test and expand the limits of cooperation—at a time when political differences precluded talks about anything else.

Now we are talking about a lot of things that threaten our mutual interests—nuclear proliferation, terrorism, financial instability, climate change. The idea of a Russian-American nuclear-arms race, much less a nuclear war, is, for now and the foreseeable future, preposterous.

Of course, foreseeable is not the same as indefinite. So, yes, while relations are relatively healthy, Obama and the Russian leaders should nail down a new strategic arms-reduction treaty, which will reportedly cut each side’s “delivery vehicles”—the long-range missiles and bombers that carry nuclear weapons—from roughly 1,600 to 800 and the number of actual bombs and warheads from 2,200 to 1,500.

Some hawks, like former George W. Bush officials John Bolton and Keith Payne, have denounced these reductions as “shockingly” dangerous and “destabilizing.”

But listen to someone who knows what he’s talking about. Franklin C. Miller, now a private defense consultant, was the Pentagon’s top nuclear planner—the civilian official who had the deepest knowledge of, and the greatest influence over, U.S. nuclear war plans—from 1985 to 2000. He told me in a phone conversation this morning, “I see no plausible scenario under which a force of 1,500-1,600 warheads and 750-800 delivery vehicles would not be capable of meeting U.S. national-security requirements.”

(The real concern of someone like Bolton is that renewed Russian-American détente might lull us into a state of complacency. In this sense, nukes and the “nuclear balance” have long been symbolic tokens as much for confrontational partisans as for diplomats.)

However, if Obama is serious about trying, in follow-on talks, to reduce the number of tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear warheads in storage, he will run into a set of near-intractable issues.

It is pretty easy to monitor and verify the number of long-range missiles and bombers a country possesses. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are large; they’re deployed in underground, concrete-covered silos alongside command-control-communications facilities. Submarines armed with such missiles periodically return to port. Bombers are stationed at airbases. In all cases, spy satellites and signals-intelligence gear can spot them with little problem.

Things got more challenging when the two sides started negotiating to limit not just the number of “delivery vehicles” but also the number of bombs and warheads they carried. They finally agreed on a neat solution: If, say, the Soviet SS-19 ICBM had been tested with six warheads in its nosecone, then all SS-19s would be counted as if they were carrying six warheads, whether or not they actually did. (It would have been impossible to verify a declaration that these SS-19s carried six warheads while those SS-19s held one or two; neither side would have permitted such intrusive inspection.)

But to verify the number of tactical nuclear weapons (which are very small and mobile) and stored warheads (which are inside and thus invisible to satellites), continuous, intrusive inspections would be mandatory. Even talking about such matters in formal talks may highlight our differences, reignite distrust, and exacerbate tensions.

The diplomatic risk might be worth taking if the payoff was substantial, but it’s not, for four reasons.

First, the Russians don’t want to slash their tactical-nuclear arsenal, which greatly outnumbers ours, though by how much nobody knows precisely. (Estimates put theirs at somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000; ours at roughly 500 to 1,000.) They see them as counters to our clear superiority in conventional forces—and as a deterrent to border incursions by China.

Second, neither side is going to be at all keen to let the other side’s spies—and that is what at least some of the “inspectors” would be—roam around its military bases, weapons labs, and suspicious-looking warehouses at will. (Estimates have it that the United States outguns Russia stored warheads by roughly 3,000 to 1,000.)

Third, it’s unlikely that the U.S. Senate would muster the two-thirds majority needed to ratify a treaty calling for such reductions and inspections. The strategic arms-reduction accord, which the United States and Russia are on the verge of signing, could be presented as an “executive agreement,” which does not require Senate ratification. (The Vladivostok accord, signed by President Gerald Ford and Leonid Brezhnev, was pushed through that way.) But even Democratic senators may insist that an accord as far-reaching and unprecedented as one that reduces tactical nukes and warheads in storage should go through the traditional hurdles.

Finally, if a main point of these reductions is to strengthen the case for global nonproliferation—by demonstrating to other countries that the United States and Russia are committed to disarmament and that, therefore, they should be too—the logic doesn’t hold.

Those who make this argument, including Obama, cite Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which states that each nation already possessing nuclear weapons “undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear-arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Therefore, the argument goes, serious disarmament by the nuclear-armed nations will persuade or oblige other nations to refrain from going nuclear themselves.

The argument has two problems. First, Article 6 isn’t exactly airtight. It states only that each nuclear-armed state “undertakes to pursue negotiations”—not that it actually negotiates—and, furthermore, that the states do so on “measures relating to” stopping the arms race and disarming, not necessarily on disarmament itself. (This may seem picky, but the language of treaties is a precise art; it was written this way for a reason.)

Second, and more to the point, Iran and North Korea, to pick two salient examples, are pursuing nuclear weapons not because we possess them (though 64 years of history do make an impression) but, rather, because they see that these weapons have strategic value.

Even a few nukes can go a long way toward deterring an enemy’s attack—and dissuading other countries from responding to acts of aggression. On this latter point, if Saddam Hussein had built nuclear weapons before he invaded Kuwait in 1990, it would have been much harder for the United States to gather a coalition of nations to push his soldiers back across the border.

It may be possible to dissuade nuclear-wannabes either by coercion or by appealing to their interests in other ways. However, they are not likely to drop their ambitions simply because they witness the spectacle of the United States and Russia engaging in substantive arms reduction.

In fact, as the larger powers hold fewer and fewer weapons, it may become more and more tempting for small powers to jump into the arms race, as it would put them in a position closer to parity. (Back in the early 1960s, when “general and complete disarmament” was seen as a serious goal, many arms-control specialists wrote essays about the difficulty of reducing nuclear weapons below a certain number—some said 100, others said 10—without prompting non-nuclear powers to do just that: build a few nukes in an attempt to gain equality with the superpowers.)

The main point is this: The United States and Russia have many common, vital interests; face many common, pressing dangers; and now have the opportunity—in the post-Cold War, post-George W. Bush era—to work out common approaches and policies. There are only so many hours in the day, so many diplomatic forums requiring presidential involvement. It would be a shame to waste the hours and forums on a full-bore immersion into the trap-strewn pit of nuclear-arms negotiations.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.