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?