Arms control is not magic, even if it seems to have high priests and secret codes.
The lesson of the Cold War is that all those complex negotiations and treaties are not by themselves agents of change, but the result of much deeper, underlying forces and the actions of people. Sure, a treaty is vital to lock in decisions and prevent cheating. But of far greater importance are the reasons that brought the two sides to the table in the first place: economics, politics, technology, and military power, as well as the role of leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The most effective nuclear arms-control measure of all time was not a treaty, but rather the demise of the Soviet Union and the superpower competition along with it. What caused it? A dysfunctional economic and political system imploded.
So let's hold off on the overheated hyperbole about the Prague treaty that U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are set to sign Thursday. As long as the weapons are still around and on alert, it is unquestionably worthwhile to limit them in a treaty with solid verification provisions. Obama promised last year in his speech in Prague to deliver a treaty that is "sufficiently bold." This one is sufficient, but it's modest, not bold.
High hopes for treaties have often not been realized. Two major treaties negotiated with difficulty, Salt II and Start II, never went into force. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention entered into force, but was so toothless the Soviet Union violated it immediately and seriously. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was abrogated by the United States.
Instead of celebrating this week and breathing a sigh of relief, what we should be doing is getting ready to seize the next big opportunity to reduce the nuclear danger. Russia still looms large. Together, Russia and the United States hold 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. It is vital to move on to the next phase: reducing tactical nuclear weapons, dealing with the large "hedge" of nuclear warheads in reserve, resolving conflict over missile defense, shoring up the weakening global nonproliferation regime, and combating terrorism, among other things.
Yet to do this we must see clearly the underlying forces shaping Russia. The Kremlin may not be eager to negotiate or concede anything soon, wary as it is of NATO at its doorstep and the weakness of its conventional forces. Whoever really governs Russia -- whether it's President Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- may want to stand tall and not negotiate further reductions. Even so, we should try. We inherited a promising age after the Cold War, when the superpowers are no longer at the brink, so let's make good use of it. It can't be as hard as making a deal with the Soviets' long-serving General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and steely Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.