News that the United States and Russia have reached agreement on an arms-control treaty is being hailed in some quarters as the greatest foreign-policy triumph of U.S. President Barack Obama's 14 months in office. It was certainly a lot harder than expected, because the new START treaty was supposed to have been completed last December, when the previous treaty lapsed. Politically, then, START has almost become the foreign policy equivalent of health-care reform, an unexpected nail-biter whose long-delayed attainment produces a massive sigh of relief.
But do arms-control deals still matter? During the heart of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union matched move and countermove all over the global chessboard, nuclear weapons represented a terrifying checkmate that each side feared the other might choose, given sufficient provocation. Both the substance and the mere fact of arms agreements offered reassurance. But that era is over, thank God. The Russian military establishment still harbors some paranoia about American intentions, but U.S. officials no longer lie awake at night worrying about how to parry a Soviet thrust through the Fulda Gap. So what difference does it make if the United States reduces its stock of deployed strategic warheads from 2,200 to 1,550?
The answer is that disarmament has largely become a means rather than an end. It is, as Obama began saying during his presidential campaign, the means by which the United States induces other states to help confront the threat that really matters: the proliferation of nuclear weapons, above all to rogue states and terrorists. "By keeping our commitment [to disarm] under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," as Obama said in a July 2008 speech, "we'll be in a better position to rally international support to bring pressure to bear on nations like North Korea and Iran that violate it."
The quid pro quo to which Obama referred is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed in 1968. The NPT prohibits non-nuclear states from developing nuclear weapons and pledges them to adopt safeguards to prevent the proliferation of weapons or weapons-grade material; and it binds the states that have nukes to "pursue negotiations in good faith" toward "general and complete disarmament." The NPT also grants all states the "inalienable right" to use nuclear energy "for peaceful purposes." The NPT is a bargain that gives something to everyone.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush, though never repudiating the bargain, treated it with the same dim regard he accorded most documents that constrained American behavior. Although agreeing to reduce the U.S. arsenal, his administration also sought to develop whole new classes of nuclear weapons. Bush's underlying view seemed to be that good countries should be allowed to have nukes and bad ones shouldn't -- a claim many non-nuclear U.S. allies found unconvincing. At the 2005 NPT review conference, the diplomacy-averse Bush team, lead by John Bolton, refused to acknowledge agreements reached at past conferences, leading to a deadlock over the agenda that consumed virtually all available time. The fiasco was widely seen as vivid proof of the administration's unilateralist bent.
But Obama believes in the NPT bargain and its promise of mutuality. The NPT is Obama-style "engagement" writ large. Ben Rhodes, deputy advisor at the National Security Council, described the treaty to me as "a quintessential example of the international system that he believes needs to be created: You acknowledge the rights of all nations, but by acknowledging that right, you place yourself in a stronger position to demand that they meet their responsibilities." It seems to be in Obama's nature to err on the side of trust, but even such classically realist statesmen as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, who have become passionate public advocates of eliminating nuclear weapons, argue that the United States must take disarmament seriously if it is to make progress on nonproliferation. "We were being perceived as chain-smoking and telling everyone else to stop smoking," Nunn said to me.
Plainly, Washington is no longer chain-smoking. In addition to the new START agreement, administration officials have vowed to pursue Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as well as the eventual passage of a treaty placing controls on the production of fissile material, both of which will be extremely difficult.