In June, President Barack Obama announced plans to seek modest reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. Critics, including Matthew Kroenig in a recent Foreign Policy article, are calling these plans extreme, but they are not. The president is simply moving to retire weapons that U.S. military leaders have already determined we do not need. Such reductions can help reduce the nuclear threat we face from Russia, build international support for U.S. nonproliferation policies, and save billions of dollars.
In fact, Obama's policy is based on 40 years of bipartisan agreement that lowering excess nuclear firepower makes the United States and the world safer. Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all embraced this approach -- and it still makes sense today.
Kroenig's central critique of Obama's call for further arms reductions is his simplistic and historically inaccurate assertion that "leaders with fewer nukes at their disposal will be more likely to cave during a crisis." Kroenig argues that during the 1962 showdown over Soviet missile deployments in Cuba, "American nuclear superiority helped compel Moscow to withdraw its missiles from the island."
At the time, the United States had 25,540 nuclear weapons, compared to Russia's 3,346. The United States deployed about 3,500 warheads capable of hitting Russia; the Soviets had about 400 capable of reaching the United States -- a 9-to-1 margin.* However, the U.S. numerical nuclear "advantage" did not stop Soviet Premier Khrushchev from deploying nuclear weapons in Cuba in the first place. In fact, it was part of the reason he took the risk.
Furthermore, Khrushchev was not the only leader who backed down to avoid nuclear Armageddon. The Soviet leader agreed to withdraw his medium-range nuclear-armed missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy's private promise to remove U.S. Jupiter nuclear-armed missiles from Turkey and to not invade Cuba.
Far from supporting Kroenig's thesis, the Cuban missile crisis demonstrates that nuclear brinkmanship is too dangerous and should be avoided. Kennedy's defense secretary, Robert McNamara, concluded in 2002, "[W]e're damn lucky to be here. We were so close to a nuclear catastrophe."
Given the catastrophic effects of even a "limited" nuclear attack, a country with a larger nuclear force cannot count on coercing a country with a smaller one. In a nuclear crisis it is much more important to seek stability and mutual security than to seek advantage and risk mutual destruction.
With these lessons in mind, it did not take long for U.S. and Russian leaders to realize that it is in both of their interests to build a more stable nuclear relationship. Seeking to move away from the nuclear brink, they negotiated the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and the 2010 New START agreement, among other measures.
Fast forward to 2013: President Obama said on June 19 in Berlin that "we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third" below New START levels of 1,550, to about 1,000-1,100 warheads. These reductions have the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Strategic Command, and the secretary of defense.