Think Again

Think Again: Mexican Drug Cartels

They aren't just about Mexico or drugs anymore.

"Drugs Aren't a Foreign Policy Problem."

You might think so for all the attention they get. As U.S. officials and commentators focus on events in Syria, Egypt, and Iran, another violent struggle is taking place much closer to home. The rise of drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Mexico has fueled crime on both sides of the border and has undermined the economy of an important trading partner of the United States.

Since 2006, more than 60,000 people have been killed in DTO-related violence, and more than 26,000 have gone missing. The violence has spread from rural Mexico to major cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City, where, this May, armed men kidnapped 12 young people from a nightclub. The bodies of 10 of the abductees were later found in a mass grave outside the city; officials think they were killed as part of an ongoing war between rival drug gangs in the capital.

Despite enormous casualties, including members of U.S. law enforcement, the turmoil in Mexico does not receive nearly the level of scrutiny or attention from the U.S. government that conflicts in other countries do. During six hours of presidential debate in the 2012 campaign, for example, there was not a single direct mention of Mexico.

This is particularly puzzling given the close geographic, economic, and cultural ties between Mexico and the United States. The two countries share a 1,933-mile border that 350 million people cross legally each year, making it the world’s busiest. Mexico is the United States’ second-biggest export market and its third-largest import supplier. And a 2011 Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans think that what happens in Mexico is either "vitally important" or "important but not vital" to the United States -- more than said the same about Afghanistan, Iran, or Pakistan.

The official U.S. neglect of the Mexican cartels is partly a function of the complex challenges they present. Violence connected with DTOs is no longer limited to northern Mexico but now reaches throughout the country. This expansion not only poses a foreign policy problem for Washington, but it also exacerbates several of the most intractable domestic issues facing the United States, including immigration reform and gun control.

A first step toward controlling the cartels would be to better understand how they function. The Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are a collection of criminal enterprises. Some, such as the Gulf cartel, have existed for decades; others, such as Los Gueros, are relative newcomers. Because of shifting alliances and breakaway cells, it is almost impossible to state definitively which cartels are in operation at any one time, and the extent of the crime, corruption, and instability associated with them has been difficult to quantify precisely. Without a clearer idea of what the DTOs are doing, the violence will only continue.

"The Cartels Are Focused on Drugs."

Drugs are just the tip of the iceberg. In the popular U.S. television series Breaking Bad, about a high school teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin, there was an instructive exchange. When the show's antihero, Walter White, was asked whether he "was in the meth business or the money business," he replied, "I'm in the empire business."

The same can be said of the DTOs, which are independent and competing entities -- not an association like OPEC. The sale of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and meth remains extremely profitable. The U.S. Justice Department has put the cartels' U.S. drug trade at $39 billion annually. But the DTOs have diversified their business considerably, both to increase their profits and to exclude rivals from new sources of revenue. For example, they are dealing increasingly in pirated intellectual property, like counterfeit software, CDs, and DVDs. The most destructive new "product," however, is people. The cartels have built a multibillion-dollar business in human trafficking, including the shipment of both illegal immigrants and sex workers.

What the DTOs are really selling is logistics, much like Wal-Mart and Amazon.com. Wal-Mart was one of the first retailers to run its own fleet of trucks, providing tailored shipping at a lower cost that in turn gave the company an edge over its competitors. Similarly, Amazon may have started as a bookseller, but its dominance, as Fast Company put it, is "now less about what it sells than how it sells," providing a distribution hub for all sorts of products. Drug-trafficking organizations are using the same philosophy to cut costs, better control distribution, and develop new sources of revenue.

The one element of the U.S.-Mexico relationship that has received no shortage of attention is the border, yet the technology and money dedicated to enhancing security there have not been enough to thwart creative DTOs. The Sinaloa cartel, for example, has an extensive network of expertly constructed tunnels under the border, some featuring air-conditioning. (The workers who build the tunnels are frequently executed after the work is completed.) At the other extreme, traffickers have used catapults to launch deliveries from Mexico into the United States.

Logistics, then, are the DTOs' main source of revenue, and illegal drugs are but one of the products they offer. As the cartels' revenue streams become increasingly diversified, the drug trade will become less and less important. In fact, the prospect of the DTOs' selling their services to terrorists, say by transporting weapons of mass destruction across the U.S.-Mexico border, has begun to frighten analysts both inside and outside government.

"But the Violence Is Unique to the Drug Trade."

No. The most brutal DTO battles are not over customers or suppliers but over ports and trade routes. The Mexican state of Michoacán, with its large Pacific port of Lázaro Cárdenas, has suffered a surge in violence as the remnants of La Familia Michoacana and the rising Los Caballeros Templarios fight for dominance. This May, Los Caballeros Templarios ambushed and shot 10 farmers after they met with government officials to protest cartel extortion. As one farmer described the DTO, "It's like a monster with a thousand arms."

Brutality on Mexico's borders is also largely a function of logistics, or so the pattern would suggest. On the U.S.-Mexico border, for instance, the city of Nuevo Laredo has been racked by violence for over a decade. Not coincidentally, the city's northern edge lies less than a mile from Interstate 35, a north-south highway running through Dallas, Kansas City, and Minneapolis and connecting to major east-west routes. Mexico's southern border has also seen a spike in violent crime, as the cartels move their products -- guns, cocaine from Colombia, and immigrants from Central America -- north to the United States.

Cartels also use violence to further less concrete objectives. Spectacular acts, such as rolling severed heads onto a nightclub dance floor (as La Familia Michoacana did in 2006), are designed to shock and frighten, not to move product or attract customers. Assassinating the family of a Mexican marine who had participated (and been killed) in a raid against a DTO, as happened in late 2009, was an unambiguous threat against all law enforcement personnel. And the DTOs regularly threaten and kill reporters -- Mexico is the fourth most dangerous nation in the world for journalists (behind only Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan), according to Reporters Without Borders -- both to prevent the release of specific information about cartel activities and to discourage reporting on them in the first place. A recent narcomanta ("drug banner") posted over two bodies hanging from a highway overpass in Nuevo Laredo sent a clear message: "This is going to happen to all of those posting funny things on the Internet.… I'm about to get you."

Violence, in other words, is not a function of the drug trade specifically. It is how the cartels manage everything from marketing to public relations to human resources.

"At Least the Violence Is Contained to Mexico."

Not at all. This past February, the Chicago Crime Commission named Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, "Public Enemy No. 1" -- the first person to receive the designation since Al Capone. The number of homicides in Chicago through early September 2013 was 27 percent higher than in New York, and its murder rate was 49 percent higher than Los Angeles's. Jack Riley, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office, has ascribed the city's unusually high murder rate to drug-related turf wars sparked by Sinaloa's growing presence in the city. The centrality of Chicago to air, rail, and road transportation networks, as well as the city's large Mexican immigrant community, make it an important node for drug distribution.

Despite what's happening in Chicago and other U.S. cities, there has been almost no appetite at the federal level for tracking the effects of the DTOs on domestic crime. Proponents of immigration reform have no wish to promote stereotypes of immigrants as dangerous criminals. Advocates for higher and longer border fencing acknowledge the danger but prioritize major cities and more populated areas, failing to realize that this tactic simply shifts cartel operations to remoter areas that are harder to control. Governors of states that border Mexico have little interest in drawing attention to crime that results from their inability to contain the DTOs. And Washington does not want to antagonize the Mexican government over its law enforcement shortcomings, particularly given that Mexico's cooperation is critical to addressing a host of other issues, such as immigration.

While Washington looks the other way, cartel activity in the United States is only getting worse. To keep their operations going, the DTOs have been engaging in money laundering and bribery on both sides of the border. In September 2013, for example, a federal jury in Austin, Texas, sentenced three men involved in laundering Los Zetas money in the United States -- including a brother of the cartel's notorious leader -- to lengthy prison sentences.

The DTOs' reach is extending ever farther into the United States. Like many successful legal businesses, the cartels are vertically integrating. Instead of merely selling meth, for example, DTOs like Sinaloa now manufacture the drug using chemical precursors they import from Asia. This, alongside new laws that have made it harder to acquire precursors in the United States, has driven "mom and pop" meth producers in the United States out of business, as they cannot compete on price or quality with the product from Mexico. The integration goes down the supply chain as well. Part of the reason that Chicago law enforcement officials are so alarmed by El Chapo is that Sinaloa no longer outsources its retailing to local dealers but is taking an ever more active role in selling the product in the United States. And that means that cartel-related crime is only going to get worse.

"The Problem Is the War on Drugs.
Legalization Would Help."

Hardly. Legalization has become an increasingly popular, if still controversial, proposal among those who think that the costs of the war on drugs have overwhelmed the benefits, including some Central and South American leaders, like Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. But because DTOs are dealing in far more than just illegal drugs, the disappearance of one revenue stream would not eradicate the cartels or decisively erode their power.

Even if the cartels were dependent on drug money, which they aren't, the idea that legalization is a binary switch that would cut off profits from the drug trade is fundamentally flawed. In the context of drugs like marijuana, "legalization" implies wide availability and fairly easy access, but it is highly unlikely that the U.S. government would remove all, or even many, restrictions on drugs like ecstasy or heroin, leaving the cartels' business in those narcotics intact.

What's more, even legitimate drugs can spur illicit trade if they are in high demand but the supply is tightly controlled. Drugs like oxycodone, a highly addictive painkiller, are legally manufactured and sold in the United States, but "oxy" is strictly regulated under Schedule II of the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Those restrictions gave rise to a thriving black market in the drug, with prices reaching as high as $150 per pill.

Licit drugs can also create highly profitable arbitrage opportunities for enterprising criminals if the laws that govern their distribution differ from state to state, as would likely be the case if marijuana or other drugs were widely legalized. Cigarettes are legal, yet interstate cigarette smuggling makes a great deal of money for organized crime; because of differing state tax rates, the opportunity for profit is substantial. Virginia, for example, which has among the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation, is grappling with increased criminal activity, because of trafficking to high-tax states like New York and New Jersey. (And Virginia's hardly the only one; other states, like Texas, have even seen armed hijackings of cigarette trucks.)

"Decapitating the Cartels
Will Render Them Powerless." 

Nope. Much has been made of the capture this July of Miguel Treviño Morales, alias "Z-40," the leader of Los Zetas. U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto praised the capture as a major milestone in the fight to dismantle the cartels. But although capturing or killing drug lords makes for dramatic news stories, a "decapitation" strategy ignores crucial aspects of the DTOs' success.

Assassinating kingpins often leads simply to martyrdom and glorification; the commemoration of cartel leaders through shrines and narcocorridos ("drug ballads") is already widespread. Decapitation can also increase violence, at least in the short to medium term, as wars of succession engulf not only the cartel itself, but also law enforcement personnel and civilians, as well as members of rival organizations. Furthermore, under pressure to prove they are still powerful, decapitated cartels may lash out in dramatic displays of violence.

The capture and imprisonment of DTO leaders, particularly in Mexico, has proved to be of limited utility. The men who control these organizations have a well-established capacity for brutality and the ability to rise to the top of a large criminal enterprise without being killed. These qualities make them formidable and, in many cases, help them to operate their businesses from prison. The ability to bribe or intimidate prison guards, for example, can win an inmate the freedom to communicate with the outside world.

What's more, prisons in both Mexico and the United States have proved fertile ground for recruitment and training. The Barrio Azteca gang, an enforcement arm of the Juárez cartel, formed in the Texas prison system. The most notorious gang in the United States is Mara Salvatrucha, more widely known as MS-13. It originated in Los Angeles, including in its prisons, before spreading across the United States and into Mexico and Central America. The scope and capabilities of MS-13 have now caught the attention of both Los Zetas and Sinaloa, which have taken steps to ally with a potentially dangerous rival.

Then there's the embarrassing fact that the most famous case of DTO decapitation is also the strategy's most obvious failure. In 1993, U.S. and Mexican officials expected that the capture and incarceration of El Chapo, Sinaloa's leader, would be a punishing blow to the increasingly powerful crime network. If anything, the opposite occurred. With the help of compliant prison guards, El Chapo arranged his own escape in 2001 from Puente Grande prison, the Mexican equivalent of an American supermax facility. He has evaded rearrest for over 12 years, and in 2009, Forbes named him one of the world's billionaires. Although he was dropped from the list this year, Forbes stated, "As the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, he is one of the most powerful people in the world."

"We Need to Hit Them Where It Hurts: the Wallet."

Exactly. Despite the ongoing arguments about drug legalization and border security, the most effective way to combat the scourge of the DTOs would be to interdict not drugs or people but money. As in any business, money is the fuel that keeps the cartels running.

Even if Sinaloa, to give only one example, were to disappear tomorrow, other organizations would quickly rise to take its slice of the lucrative pie. One of the most basic tenets of business is that highly profitable markets attract lots of new entrants. This is true for legal and illegal enterprises alike. The staggering profits of illegal trade would be much less attractive if the DTOs could not launder, deposit, and ultimately spend their money.

But shutting down the cartels' financial operations will be a formidable task, given the help they have had from multinational financial institutions, which have profited from the cartels' large-dollar deposits. In 2010, Wachovia bank (which was acquired by Wells Fargo in 2008) admitted that it had processed $378 billion of currency exchanges in Mexico -- an amount equal to about one-third of the country's GDP -- to which it had failed to apply anti-laundering restrictions. In 2012, British bank HSBC settled with the U.S. government for $1.9 billion to escape prosecution for, among other things, laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for the Sinaloa cartel. U.S. law enforcement has also implicated Bank of America and Western Union in DTO money laundering. Although illegal money transfers can happen without banks' knowledge, the volume and widespread occurrence of these transactions indicate just how easy it is for the cartels to clean their dirty money.

Paying a fine to avoid prosecution is almost no punishment at all. The fines Wachovia paid amounted to less than 2 percent of its 2009 profit. Even the record fine assessed on HSBC amounted to only 12 percent of the bank's profits. Furthermore, banks can simply accrue funds to offset any possible fines, either by increasing what they charge cartels or by setting aside some of the earnings from laundering, even as they continue to do business with the DTOs. Prosecuting bank employees involved in money laundering, up through the highest levels of an institution, would be a better tack. Pictures of a chief compliance officer as he entered a courtroom for sentencing would have a far greater deterrent effect than any financial penalty.

To that end, investigative techniques and legal precedents for going after global criminal networks are increasingly robust, and the political payoffs could be substantial. One of the more successful campaigns in the war on terrorism has been the financial one; experience gained in tracking the funds of al Qaeda could make it easier to similarly unravel Los Zetas' financing. Malfeasance in the financial industry is nothing new, but public sensitivity to banks' wrongdoing is arguably higher than it has been in decades. An enterprising prosecutor could make quite a reputation for herself by tracking DTO money through the financial system.

The cartels, along with the violence and corruption they perpetrate, are threats to both Mexico and the United States. The problem is a complicated one and taps areas of profound policy disagreement. The way to make progress in combating the DTOs is to ignore issues like gun control and illegal immigration and follow the money. Stanching the cartels' profits will do more to end the bloodshed than any new fence or law.

Photos: Courtesy of ICE, Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images, Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images, Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images, AFP/Getty Images, YURI CORTEZ/AFP/GettyImages, Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/GettyImages

Think Again

Think Again: American Nuclear Disarmament

A smaller atomic arsenal isn't just wishful thinking -- it's bad strategy.

"Nuclear Weapons Are Cold War Relics."

Not so. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the era of nuclear competition seemed to be at an end, and the United States and Russia began to get rid of many weapons they had used to threaten each other for more than 40 years. In 1967, the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal peaked at 31,255 warheads, but by 2010, under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) signed with Russia, the United States had promised to deploy no more than 1,550.

In June of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his intention to go even lower, to around 1,000 warheads -- a move that would leave the United States with fewer nuclear weapons than at any time since 1953. What's more, influential figures around the world, including erstwhile American hawks, have increasingly supported steps toward total disarmament. In his major 2009 address in Prague, Obama committed "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Nuclear reductions and the heady dreams of abolition are driven in part by a belief that nukes are Cold War anachronisms. But it would be incorrect -- dangerous, in fact -- to assume that the conditions that have allowed the United States to de-emphasize its atomic arsenal will persist. Nuclear weapons are still the most potent military tools on Earth, and they will remain central to geopolitical competition. They have been relatively unimportant in the recent past not because humanity has somehow become more enlightened, but because we have been blessed with a temporary respite from great-power rivalry.

The Soviet Union's collapse left the United States as the world's sole superpower, and America's unmatched conventional military overawed other countries. Nuclear weapons have not been central to America's national security for the past two decades because its primary foes -- Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and al Qaeda -- did not have them. Whatever America's problems in prosecuting its recent wars, a lack of firepower was not one of them.

But times are changing. Economists predict that China could overtake the United States as the world's largest economy in the coming years, and international relations theory tells us that transitions between reigning hegemons and rising challengers often produce conflict. Already, China has become more assertive in pursuing revisionist claims in East Asia, confronting America's allies, and building military capabilities -- including anti-ship ballistic missiles and submarines -- tailored for a fight with the United States. In September 2012, a dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands nearly caused a war that could have easily drawn in the United States. Beijing's contested claims to natural resources in the South China Sea and ever-present tensions with Taiwan could also lead to Sino-U.S. conflict. Even relations with Russia, America's partner in arms control, are becoming more competitive: The civil war in Syria bears every hallmark of a Cold War-style proxy battle. In short, great-power political competition is heating up once again, and as it does, nuclear weapons will once again take center stage.

The writing is already on the wall. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are modernizing or expanding their nuclear arsenals, and Iran is vigorously pursuing its own nuclear capability. As Yale University political scientist Paul Bracken notes, we are entering a "second nuclear age" in which "the whole complexion of global power politics is changing because of the reemergence of nuclear weapons as a vital element of statecraft and power politics." Nostalgia for simpler times can be seductive, but the United States needs a nuclear force that can protect it from the challenges that lie ahead.

MIKE FISHER/AFP/Getty Images

"It Takes Only a Handful of Nukes to Deter an Enemy."

Wrong. Advocates of further cuts argue that a secure second-strike capability -- the ability to absorb an attack and retain enough nuclear warheads to launch a devastating response -- is sufficient for nuclear deterrence. Although "secure" and "devastating" are imprecise terms, many analysts would say that a few dozen submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each with multiple warheads, is plenty because at-sea subs are difficult to target in a first strike and the firepower provided by, say, 200 nuclear weapons is impressive. By their logic, anything more is "overkill" that can be cut with little loss to U.S. security.

Although it is possible that no sane leader would intentionally start a nuclear war with a state that possesses even a small deterrent force, nuclear-armed states still have conflicting interests that can lead to crises. And it turns out that, contrary to widely held assumptions, the nuclear balance of power is critically important to how such disputes are resolved.

Recently, I methodically reviewed the relationship between the size of a country's nuclear arsenal and its security. In a statistical analysis of all nuclear-armed countries from 1945 to 2001, I found that the state with more warheads was only one-third as likely to be challenged militarily by other countries and more than 10 times more likely to prevail in a crisis -- that is, to achieve its basic political goals -- when it was challenged. Moreover, I found that the size of this advantage increased along with the margin of superiority. States with vastly more nukes (95 percent of the two countries' total warheads) were more than 17 times more likely to win. These findings held even after accounting for disparities in conventional military power, political stakes, geographical proximity, type of political system, population, territorial size, history of past disputes, and other factors that could have influenced the outcomes.

When the United States operated from a position of nuclear strength during the Cold War, it stopped the Soviet Union from building a nuclear submarine base in Cuba in 1970 and deterred Moscow from increasing support to its Arab allies in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. By contrast, when the nuclear balance was less favorable to Washington, it was unable to achieve clear victories in crises against the Soviet Union -- for example, failing to roll back Moscow's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

In addition, qualitative evidence from the past 70 years shows that leaders pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates into a geopolitical advantage. During the Cuban missile crisis, American nuclear superiority helped compel Moscow to withdraw its missiles from the island. As Gen. Maxwell Taylor, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a memo to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, "We have the strategic advantage in our general war capabilities.… This is no time to run scared." Similarly, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued, "One thing Mr. Khrushchev may have in mind is that he knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority, but he also knows that we don't really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent that he has to live under fear of ours."

We see similar patterns in South Asia. When asked years later why Pakistan ultimately withdrew its forces from Indian Kashmir during the 1999 Kargil crisis, former Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes cited his country's nuclear superiority. In the event of a nuclear exchange, he said, "We may have lost a part of our population … [but] Pakistan may have been completely wiped out."

This may sound crazy. To most people, "But you should see the other guy" would be scant consolation for losing perhaps millions of one's fellow citizens. But the truth is that nuclear war might well be more devastating for one country than for the other, even if both sides can inflict "unacceptable" damage. As Cold War nuclear strategist Herman Kahn wrote, "Few people differentiate between having 10 million dead, 50 million dead, or 100 million dead. It all seems too horrible. However, it does not take much imagination to see that there is a difference."

This is not to argue that leaders of countries with bigger arsenals believe they can fight and win nuclear wars. The logic is more subtle. Nuclear states coerce each other through brinkmanship. They heighten crises, raising the risk of nuclear war until one side backs down and the other gets its way. At each stage of the crisis, leaders make gut-wrenching calculations about whether to escalate, thereby risking a catastrophic nuclear war, or to submit, throwing an important geopolitical victory to their opponent. If the costs of nuclear war are higher for one state than another, then giving in will always look more attractive to leaders in the inferior position -- whatever payoff they might get from escalating would always be offset by a higher potential cost. So, on average, we should expect that leaders with fewer nukes at their disposal will be more likely to cave during a crisis. And this is exactly what the data show.

Competition between nuclear powers is like a game of chicken, and in a game of chicken, we should expect the smaller car to swerve first, even if a crash would be disastrous for both. The United States has always driven a Hummer, but it is trading it in for a Prius, even though games of chicken are likely for decades to come. Rather than cutting its forces, the United States should, as President John F. Kennedy promised, maintain a nuclear arsenal "second to none."

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

"But Doesn't Superiority Increase the Risk of War
in the First Place?"

Don't be so sure. It is true that many strategists have long argued that having a nuclear arsenal "second to none" could increase the risk of nuclear war. Their logic is simple: If a state has a "first-strike advantage" -- that is, the ability to launch a nuclear attack that disarms its opponent and leaves it relatively invulnerable to retaliation -- then, in a crisis, it might be tempted to start a nuclear war. Alternatively, the weaker state might be tempted to use its weapons first, lest it lose them altogether. By this reasoning, nuclear superiority is dangerous for everyone, and the most stable situation is one in which both sides have survivable arsenals of roughly the same size, leaving both vulnerable.

Today, it is still widely believed that it is a bad idea for the United States to possess a nuclear advantage over Russia, and the Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review identified "strategic stability" as a primary goal. That is why New START and Obama's proposed follow-on agreement aim for equal limits on the United States and Russia. Some analysts also apply this logic to China, over which the United States has tremendous nuclear superiority. (China is thought to have a mere 50 or so warheads capable of reaching the United States.)

But an American first-strike advantage is just that, an advantage, and arguments that try to make a vice out of a virtue rest on tortured logic. After all, the United States possesses a first-strike advantage against the world's 184 non-nuclear states, and it doesn't wring its hands about that. Would Americans be better off if these countries could hold them hostage with nuclear threats? No. Would they feel better if North Korea's missile tests did not routinely fail, giving the Hermit Kingdom a more reliable ability to nuke Los Angeles? Of course not. Then why is the United States so fearful of pursuing superiority over Russia and China?

The answer often given is that, while the United States can trust itself not to start a nuclear war, it doesn't want to make a Russian or Chinese leader feel the need to "use 'em or lose 'em." But this fear is unfounded. A leader in a position of inferiority -- inferiority so extreme that his country could be vulnerable to a disarming first strike -- has a choice of launching a nuclear war he will surely lose or simply conceding the contested issue. Faced with that choice, there is every reason to believe he will back down. Indeed, this is exactly the dynamic that my research demonstrates. To make any other decision, a leader would have to be either crazy or at the end of his rope. But if either were the case, nuclear parity would, if anything, make him more likely to gamble on nuclear war.

In sum, a U.S. nuclear advantage is a major problem -- if you are one of Washington's adversaries.

-/AFP/GettyImages

"But a Smaller Arsenal Will Help the United States Discourage Nuclear Proliferation."

Keep dreaming. Proponents of deep cuts claim that a smaller arsenal will help the United States stop the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states and terrorists because having so many nuclear weapons makes it difficult (if not hypocritical) to tell, say, Iran that it cannot have any or to convince non-nuclear countries (such as Brazil and Turkey) to help pressure Iran.

This argument makes sense at a superficial level, but on closer inspection it falls apart. As Iran's leaders decide whether to push forward with, or put limits on, their nuclear program, they likely consider whether nuclear weapons would improve their security, whether they have the technical capability to produce nuclear weapons, whether they could withstand economic sanctions or military strikes from the United States and its allies, and a host of other factors. The size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal would not affect any of these calculations.

Similarly, in considering whether to pressure Tehran, Turkey likely considers the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, whether it can actually affect Iranian policy, how curtailing trade with Iran would hurt its economy, and how its Iran policy will affect relations with other countries. But, again, it is implausible to think that if Washington possessed 1,000 warheads instead of 1,550, Turkey would suddenly get tougher with Iran.

In my research, I systematically searched for a correlation between the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and a variety of measurable nonproliferation outcomes: state decisions to explore, pursue, and acquire nuclear weapons; voting on nonproliferation issues in the United Nations Security Council; and the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to non-nuclear-weapon states. I couldn't find any evidence of a relationship. The United States has been cutting the size of its nuclear arsenal since the late 1960s, but there is no reason to believe that its cuts have slowed or reversed proliferation. In fact, the most important diplomatic breakthrough in stopping the spread of nukes -- the opening for signature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- occurred in 1968, at nearly the peak of the U.S. arsenal's size. And, remember, 177 countries have never pursued nuclear weapons at any point, including when the United States possessed more than 30,000 warheads.

Some advocates argue that many states signed the NPT only because it mandates cuts to existing nuclear arsenals, but in fact the NPT does not require cuts or disarmament. It simply requires all states to "pursue negotiations in good faith" on measures relating to disarmament. So though the United States can by all means pursue negotiations, it should not come to a deal that further reduces its nuclear stockpile until the world has been made safe for disarmament -- and that, unfortunately, will not happen anytime soon.

JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

"The U.S. Can Save Money
by Shrinking Its Nuclear Arsenal."

Don't count on it. In the climate of budget austerity now afflicting Washington, some supporters of nuclear cuts turn to another, nonstrategic argument to advance their case, saying that reducing the size of the nuclear arsenal would save money. But it would not save much, and it might even cost more.

It is important to understand that warhead reductions alone will not result in savings. As any employee of the U.S. national nuclear laboratories can tell you, the cost of nuclear weapons is in the infrastructure; the warheads, in comparison, are virtually free. If the United States is going to retain even a handful of nuclear weapons, it will need national laboratories with scientists and technicians, delivery vehicles, military units trained to handle nuclear weapons, and many other capabilities. These are large, fixed costs regardless of the number of warheads in the arsenal.

Moreover, reducing the number of nuclear weapons the United States deploys can actually result in short-term budget increases. Reducing arsenal size means pulling missiles out of silos, dismantling retired warheads, and decommissioning and decontaminating nuclear facilities. All of this costs money.

It would only be by failing to fully modernize the systems that deliver the warheads -- intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines -- that the United States could hope to save money. But unless it completely disarms or kills a leg of this triad, the country's aging missiles, bombers, and subs will need to be upgraded. Delaying the modernization of delivery vehicles, as some have suggested, would save only an estimated $3.9 billion annually over 10 years, an amount that is nothing short of trivial compared with the overall U.S. defense budget, which is roughly $600 billion per year.

Over the long term, the budget-savings argument becomes even less compelling. Nuclear weapons provide a lot of bang for the buck, literally and figuratively. President Dwight Eisenhower's "New Look" policy in the 1950s emphasized nuclear weapons -- as does current Russian military doctrine -- because they are less costly than comparable conventional capabilities. If the United States continues to cut its nuclear arsenal, it will need to develop new conventional capabilities to fill the roles and missions previously performed by nuclear weapons. At present, nuclear weapons provide a strategic deterrent at a cost of only about 4 percent of the defense budget. Do we really think equivalent conventional forces would be more cost-efficient?

Furthermore, only if we think the United States can maintain a diminished nuclear force indefinitely is it plausible to think that nuclear cuts will save money, but this would be an unwise bet given that other countries are moving in the opposite direction. In 1989, the Energy Department shut down its only plutonium-pit manufacturing plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado. Decommissioning and decontaminating the facility cost taxpayers $7 billion. In 2007, however, the department restored pit-manufacturing capability at a cost of billions of dollars, and it is seeking billions more for a new facility. This poor decision teaches a broader lesson: It would be much more costly to cut now and build back up later, rather than simply recapitalize current capabilities.

To justify kneecapping the U.S. arsenal as we enter a second nuclear age, the savings would have to be overwhelming. But they are not. As Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently said, "Nuclear weapons don't actually cost that much.… You don't save a lot of money by having arms control."

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"If the United States Can't Go Lower, Who Can?"

Maybe no one. Fashionistas sometimes quip that Americans are always a couple of years behind the rest of the world in adopting new styles. Trends in nuclear weapons policy are apparently no different from the catwalk. While it is still fashionable in Washington to talk about nuclear reductions, for the rest of the world, nukes are the new black.

Russia needs nuclear weapons to offset the conventional superiority of the United States and NATO and affirm its great-power status. President Vladimir Putin has already poured cold water on Obama's proposal for additional nuclear reductions, and Russia's military doctrine emphasizes nuclear weapons, including their first use early in a crisis, to compensate for its weakened conventional military. Russia is subject to the same strategic-warhead limits that apply to the United States under New START, but it also maintains an arsenal of 3,800 tactical nukes -- smaller weapons intended for battlefield use. Moscow is building a rail-mobile missile, has commissioned new nuclear-capable submarines, and plans to construct a next generation of heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

China's nuclear weapons also serve as a deterrent against America's superior conventional power. During the Cold War, China appeared content with a minimum deterrent -- a result, experts speculated, of Mao Zedong's strategic thinking. But recent scholarship suggests that China's nuclear arsenal was stunted by organizational and political pathologies. The kinks are now out of the system and Beijing is going bigger. According to the Pentagon, China is expanding its arsenal of warheads, building new nuclear-armed submarines, and developing next-generation, road-mobile ICBMs with multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle warheads. If U.S.-China relations deteriorate, Beijing might eventually leverage its massive economy to match or surpass America's nuclear capabilities. Additional U.S. reductions would only make such a sprint to parity all the more tempting.

At this very moment, India and Pakistan are engaged in the most intense nuclear arms race the world has seen since the Cold War. India needs nukes to deter China's superior conventional and nuclear might to its northeast and to counter Pakistan's nuclear weapons to the northwest. New Delhi's nuclear arsenal has grown by more than 200 percent in the past decade and now includes an estimated 100 warheads. It is developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles and building longer-range ballistic missiles, and last year it ordered more than 100 nuclear-capable aircraft from France.

For Pakistan, the pursuit of nuclear superiority over India is seen as a matter of national survival given its recurring conflicts with its much larger neighbor. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has also tripled in the past decade and is now estimated to include roughly 110 warheads. Moreover, it is rumored that Pakistani military officers openly talk about an arsenal that will eventually contain more than 1,000 warheads. Islamabad is testing longer-range ballistic missiles, developing new nuclear-capable aircraft, and working on a sea-based nuclear capability.

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests in the past decade and is estimated to have an expanding arsenal of roughly a dozen warheads. It is also working on a ballistic missile designed to reach the U.S. West Coast. Iran is vigorously pursuing a nuclear capability, and experts assess that Iran could have enough weapons-grade uranium for its first bomb in months. Moreover, the Pentagon estimates that Iran could have a ballistic missile capable of reaching America's East Coast by 2015. These efforts are making countries in Asia and the Middle East nervous. Officials in Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Turkey have floated the idea (some more loudly than others) of building their own nukes in response to the new nuclear kids on the block.

World leaders don't need to read this article to know that large nuclear forces can make them safer. Some scholars might protest that building nuclear arsenals larger than required for retaliation is illogical, but when academic theories are consistently contradicted by evidence from the real world, it is not the real world that is mistaken.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

"But So Many Important People Want to Go to Lower -- Even to Zero!"

Get real. In a 2007 op-ed, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Shultz, and Sam Nunn -- a bipartisan group of éminences grises -- endorsed "setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal." Their article reinvigorated the nuclear disarmament movement and helped spark an international "Global Zero" campaign that has drawn the support of former generals, ambassadors, and political officials from the United States and around the world. It is on the wave of this support that Obama announced his intention to reduce nuclear arsenals radically and move toward a world without nuclear weapons.

But it is not clear that a world without nuclear weapons would be desirable, and it certainly isn't feasible. Only if we could fundamentally transform international politics such that states no longer faced security threats might there be reason to think that the world could be made safe for global zero. And even proponents admit this day may never come. In his famous Prague speech, Obama confessed, "I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime."

After all, the United States can't rid the world of nuclear weapons on its own; other states, including its enemies, get a vote. Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea possess nuclear weapons not because they blindly imitate the United States, but because they fear their neighbors and, in the case of Washington's enemies, America's awesome conventional military power. Even if the United States gave up its entire nuclear arsenal, other countries would not be compelled to follow its lead.

Instead of striving for the smallest possible arsenal in the erroneous belief that less is better, the United States should strive to maintain clear nuclear superiority over its adversaries. Ideally, this means the ability to wipe out an enemy's nuclear forces before they can be used and to annihilate its homeland -- because the more devastating that adversaries find the prospect of nuclear war, the less likely they will be to start trouble. Where this is not possible, the United States must aim for a posture that limits damage to the U.S. homeland to the greatest extent possible and that at least ensures destruction of an adversary.

That means the United States should refrain from additional nuclear reductions and should maintain the "hedge" force of weapons it keeps in reserve. The Obama administration must also follow through on its promise to fully modernize U.S. nuclear infrastructure. Finally, the country must prepare for the possibility that if China or other strategic competitors continue to expand their nuclear arsenals, the United States might once again have to build up its strategic forces. You don't bring a knife to a gunfight, and America shouldn't bring a crippled nuclear arsenal to the second nuclear age.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images