In their upcoming Oct. 22 debate, Barack Obama and Mitt
Romney will finally go head-to-head on foreign policy. Nuclear weapons and arms
control, however, have not been identified as topics for their third encounter.
That's too bad, because these subjects are central to the security of the
United States -- and in 2013 the president will face a significant opportunity
for nuclear arms control.
There is little question that Obama sees value in reducing
nuclear arms. Within months of taking office in January 2009, he delivered a
speech in Prague laying out the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. To be
sure, he attached qualifiers and said he might not live to see achievement of
the goal. In the near term, he called for reducing the role and number of
nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy, and both the nuclear posture review
his administration completed in 2010 and the New START treaty it signed with
Russia that same year reflected that aim.
Little of significance on arms control, however, has
happened in the second half of Obama's term. Although the president called for
a new round of negotiations following New START to reduce nonstrategic and
reserve nuclear warheads as well as deployed strategic nuclear forces, no such negotiations
have followed. NATO adopted a deterrence and defense posture review that
conditioned any change in the U.S. nuclear presence in Europe on Russian
actions. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is no closer to
ratification than in 2009. And completion of the administration's nuclear
posture review implementation study -- which will set the president's nuclear weapons
policy and number of nuclear weapons needed to support it -- has been delayed.
While the Republican right has attacked Obama for New START,
his nuclear posture review, and his "naïve" vision of a nuclear-free world, arms
control proponents are disappointed that more has not been accomplished. They
had high hopes when the president took office, as did many administration
officials. Obama's team anticipated that they might rapidly conclude a new
strategic arms treaty with Moscow, secure quick ratification, and then use the resulting
momentum to gain Senate approval of the CTBT while moving to negotiate further
nuclear cuts with the Russians.
Reality got in the way. The Russians at times slow-balled
the negotiations, calculating that Obama might offer concessions in order to get
New START done before he traveled to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize in
December 2009 (he did not). Gaining Senate consent to ratification proved more
time-consuming and difficult than anyone expected -- and produced no momentum
for moving on the CTBT. After New START entered into force, the Russians showed
little readiness for new negotiations, preferring to haggle over U.S. missile
defense plans, with a wait-and-see posture as to who would be the American
president in 2013.
As for NATO nuclear policy, U.S. officials see no need for
nuclear weapons in Europe to deter Russia, but they have shown sensitivity to
the views of Central European allies, who want no reduction in those weapons until
Moscow makes some significant gesture. Many in the Senate remain dubious about
the CTBT, and the administration decided (correctly) not to bring it to the
floor unless it had the votes in hand. As for the nuclear posture review
implementation study, the White House apparently concluded that finishing it
and announcing the main elements would be politically risky in a charged
presidential campaign. Supporters of arms control hope that, if reelected,
Obama will turn back to the subject of nuclear weapons reductions with renewed
energy and a willingness to spend some political capital.
In contrast to Obama, Romney clearly is skeptical about
negotiated nuclear arms reductions. Among New START's harshest critics, he
penned a July 2010 op-ed
calling the treaty "Obama's worst foreign policy mistake." The article
surprised even some Republicans with the vehemence of his opposition and the odd
claims it made -- he faulted New START for not banning bombers from carrying
intercontinental ballistic missiles (even though neither the United States nor
Russia has a bomber capable of lifting such missiles). Today, Romney's foreign
policy team is stacked with former officials who saw little reason for
negotiated arms control during their time in the George W. Bush administration and
who vigorously opposed New START.
That said, could geopolitical and budget realities lead a
Romney administration to a more moderate approach? He has called for building a
larger Navy and wants to avoid cutting Army manpower even as the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan have wound down. All that will cost money. Those priorities
will compete with resources needed for modernizing the strategic nuclear
deterrent. Arms control might lower the bill somewhat.
Romney might seek negotiations to reduce nonstrategic nuclear
weapons, an area in which Russia holds a large numerical advantage. He
criticized New START for not addressing those weapons, and Senate Republicans have
called for efforts to limit them. In fact, NATO's consensus on nuclear policy
could unravel if Washington does not do something about them. Likewise, NATO
allies expect that the U.S. government will seek a cooperative approach with
Moscow on missile defense.
The short answer is that we do not know what Romney will do
about nuclear weapons. His foreign policy white paper
offers precious little detail, promising only a "review" of New START. But if confronted
with hard choices about military requirements, budgets, and relations with
Russia, would we see a more moderate Romney?
Whoever is president in 2013 will face a nuclear arms
control opportunity that is far more significant than many appreciate. Done
right, it could save funds that would be better used to strengthen U.S.
conventional military forces or reduce the deficit. It could reinvigorate
U.S.-Russia relations after a "reset" policy that, while beneficial to both
sides in recent years, is now clearly stalled. And it could help Washington and
Moscow promote nuclear nonproliferation around the world and formalize the
consensus against nuclear weapons testing.
The opportunity should begin with the pursuit of another
U.S.-Russian offensive arms accord. A New START II treaty could seek to limit
each country to no more than 2,000-2,500 total nuclear warheads, with a
sublimit of no more than 1,000 deployed strategic warheads. The reduction in
strategic warheads by more than one-third from New START levels would be
significant; more important would be the first-ever limit on nonstrategic
warheads. Even with these lower limits, the United States and Russia would
remain far superior to other countries in warhead totals. Moscow has been in a holding pattern the past 18 months, waiting
to see who will be the U.S. president in 2013. Given that the Russians may have
difficulties maintaining their strategic force at New START's levels and their
inability to match the U.S. capacity to add warheads to the deployed force
should the treaty break down, the Kremlin may well have reasons to negotiate.
This offensive accord could be complemented with -- and, in
fact, be made easier to achieve by -- confidence-building measures on missile
defenses, based principally around the operation of a data fusion center in
Brussels and a planning and operations center in Moscow, both jointly staffed
by NATO and Russian military officers. The day-to-day operations of these
centers, in conjunction with annual notifications regarding missile defenses
and other transparency measures could provide the Russian military a full and
regularly updated picture of U.S. and NATO missile defense capabilities, from
which they could assess whether a serious threat to their strategic ballistic
missiles existed. (U.S. missile defense plans over the next 10 years pose
little real threat, but Russia will feel better if able to reach such an
assessment on its own.) In effect, the sides would call a temporary truce over
missile defense, recognizing that the issue could come back down the road. Missile defense cooperation has been
stymied by Moscow's demand for a legal agreement that U.S. missile defenses
would not be directed against Russian strategic forces, something the Senate
would never accept. The Kremlin is well aware of that opposition; indeed, the
demand may simply reflect a desire, as with further nuclear cuts, to wait to
see who will be president next January. But holding to this position in 2013
would run the risk of Russia appearing impotent as NATO proceeds with its
missile defense plans.
With these efforts to further reduce nuclear arms and reach
an understanding on missile defense as backdrop, Moscow and Washington could
push to broaden the nuclear reductions process to third-party countries. Any
reductions below the levels in a New START II treaty would require commitments
from third-party countries, at least not to increase their warhead numbers. The U.N.
Security Council's permanent five members already have a dialogue underway on
nuclear disarmament; while it's now at the beginning stages, it might later
evolve into a forum for a discussion of more meaningful multilateral
Washington could consider the prospects for CTBT ratification.
The Senate may or may not be amenable, and a serious attempt at ratification
would make sense only if the odds appear reasonably good. If attainable, U.S.
ratification would raise the bar against testing by others and leave the United
States -- which has conducted more nuclear tests than all other nations
combined -- with a significant advantage in nuclear weapons knowledge. Securing Senate consent to CTBT
ratification will be difficult, and any future administration should not press the
matter unless it sees a path to gain the needed number of votes. But the
demonstrated ability of the Stockpile
Stewardship Program to maintain the reliability of the U.S. arsenal plus
advances in technologies for detecting nuclear tests over the past decade have
significantly strengthened the case for the CTBT.
With persistence, creativity and some luck, by the tail end
of the next administration we might see some significant steps: New START II in
force and further cuts to U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals; a cooperative
NATO-Russia missile defense in operation; third-party nuclear powers
beginning to engage in the arms control process by taking on "no increase"
commitments; and real progress -- ideally including U.S. and Chinese
ratification -- toward bringing the CTBT into force. This is ambitious, but not
It matters to U.S. security whether nuclear weapons are
being limited and reduced, or whether other countries can build them without
constraint or transparency. It matters to U.S. security whether missile defense
can be a cooperative NATO-Russia issue, or whether it inflames relations and
threatens to undercut cooperation on other questions. And it matters to U.S.
security whether other countries can test nuclear weapons and erode the
knowledge advantage that the United States has secured from more than 45 years
These questions affect the safety and security of
every American. A reelected Obama administration would be more likely to pursue
policies that might take the country in the direction outlined above. A Romney
administration would likely be dubious of this vision; and it would be good to
hear more detail from the governor and his foreign policy team. Let us hope
that the two candidates address the matter frankly when they meet face-to-face
again this coming Monday.
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images