Don’t Reduce The US Nuclear Arsenal Unilaterally

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We Need Levers to Move the World Toward Disarmament

By Barry Blechman – President Obama does not lack advice on the nuclear policies he should pursue. Six projects, at least, are providing such recommendations. Prominent among them are suggestions that the US should reduce its nuclear arsenal unilaterally, eliminating weapons that most observers agree are no longer needed for military purposes. Unilateral cuts, it is argued, would set a good example for other countries and would strengthen US non-proliferation credentials, making it easier to persuade Iran and North Korea to give up their aspirations for nuclear weapons and permitting the US to enter the 2010 Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference from a position of strength. Recommendations differ on the size of the cut, but most believe that around 1,000 weapons would provide all the nuclear deterrence the US needs — and then some.

Such a significant unilateral reduction would be a terrible mistake. The cuts would not accomplish the goals claimed for them and would create new problems that could, ironically, increase the risk of proliferation. Most importantly, they would diminish opportunities to negotiate mutual reductions in US and Russian arsenals that could eventually lead to a nuclear-free world.

The US has long sought to prevent its allies from acquiring nuclear weapons by committing itself to their security, including an assurance to counter any nuclear threat against them. Many NATO members, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, have relinquished nuclear weapon programs in exchange for these security guarantees. In the 1990s, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine were also persuaded to give up the nuclear arms they had inherited from the Soviet Union, in part by implied nuclear guarantees.

For such guarantees to be credible the US must at least maintain numerical parity with the nuclear forces of potential enemies. Significant unilateral reductions by the US would greatly worry states concerned about Russian nuclear forces; these include newer Eastern European NATO members, Ukraine, and even older NATO members if the cuts were large enough. Key Asian states are concerned about China’s growing nuclear capabilities and North Korea’s fledgling nuclear arsenal. While even reduced US nuclear forces would still greatly exceed China’s and North Korea’s, allied countries would wonder if they could depend on the US “nuclear umbrella” indefinitely. At a minimum, these concerns could cause grave alliance difficulties; conceivably, they could lead some to pursue their own nuclear capabilities. Another regional effect of a sufficiently deep cut might be China’s conclusion that it could easily match US nuclear capabilities. Such a development could lead to significant problems in the event of a Taiwan or Korean crisis.

Unilateral reductions of the magnitude being discussed also would reduce President Obama’s leverage with Russia when negotiating potential mutual restraints on arsenals. Russian and US arsenals comprise roughly 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. It is evident that deeper reductions on their part are an essential next step on the road to eliminating nuclear weapons world-wide. But why should Moscow agree to limits on its own forces when the US is already stripping its arsenal unilaterally? Russian military doctrine values short-range, or “tactical” nuclear weapons to offset Western conventional superiority. Persuading Russia to include these shorter range weapons in future agreements will be difficult without having anything significant to trade.

Nor would a unilateral reduction help the US contain proliferation. Iran and North Korea will pursue their weapon programs depending on broad strategic, economic, and political considerations, whether the US has 1,000 or 5,000 weapons. In either case, they would be helplessly outnumbered and would depend on a US unwillingness to sustain even a single nuclear blast on its territory to deter American involvement in a regional crisis.

There would be no gain at the NPT Review Conference either. The US nuclear stockpile has been reduced by three-fourths since 1989, but there is nary a mention of that in the records of the NPT proceedings – other than those inserted by US representatives. Instead, the nations dissatisfied with the Treaty focus solely on the Bush Administration’s attempts to develop two new warheads, which have been denied repeatedly by the Congress.

President Obama also should be aware of the political implications. The announcement by a new president that he is making significant unilateral reductions in US nuclear forces, in the hope the Russians will follow suit, would play into the hands of those seeking to tar him and his party as “weak on defense.”

President Obama has embraced the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. There are no short-cuts. The US can strengthen its position in the NPT Review Conference by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and persuading China, India and other nations to follow suit. The Obama Administration can regain the high ground in talks with Iran and North Korea by dropping the distinction between “good” and “bad” nuclear caretakers and pursuing the elimination of nuclear weapons by all nations. And it needs to restart the dialogue with Russia, seeking common ground on missile defenses, a quick extension of the START and Moscow Agreement, and the beginning of doubtlessly difficult negotiations for a comprehensive agreement to significantly reduce both sides’ total stock of nuclear warheads. At that point, the United States and Russia could turn to the rest of the world and say, with a straight face and clear eye, “Comrades, now let us discuss a treaty to rid the world of all nuclear weapons, weapons which serve no purpose but which threaten all civilized life.”

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Barry Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center and a Stimson Distinguished Fellow currently working on developing solutions for the nuclear threat.

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