Why is the Obama administration frantically trying to push New START, a strategic arms-control agreement with Russia, through the “lame duck” session of Congress? Because of the president’s deep commitment to U.S. nuclear disarmament.
He fears that New START may not garner the necessary votes in the new Congress. He also realizes that a failure to approve the treaty in the departing Senate could undermine his broader policy to curb nuclear weapons and eventually eliminate them.
But these concerns shouldn’t trump the newly elected senators’ opportunity to review a significant accord that would be implemented on their watch, as 10 of them noted in a letter to Sen. Harry Reid on Nov. 18. After all, they may decide to take American down a different course.
The administration acts as if the choice is between New START or nothing. This assumption is fallacious. Some of the treaty’s supporters maintain that criticism of New START stems from partisanship alone and that critics are simply opposed to arms control. Such assumptions are also wrong. The problems with New START are substantive.
The first principle of arms control is to negotiate from a position of strength. This enduring principle suggests an alternative path to New START.
First, an alternative treaty should not be tied to the purpose of global nuclear disarmament. As the final report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States cautioned, “The conditions that might make possible the global elimination of nuclear weapons are not present today and their creation would require a fundamental transformation of the world political order.” Indeed, New START is seen as an essential aspect of a disarmament policy that is predicated on the notion that the proper U.S. response to each unwelcome development in the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is to take another step toward U.S. nuclear disarmament.
Thus, New START is seen as an effective response to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear-missile programs. Yet, New START imposes no constraints on these countries. Indeed, as studies by Baker Spring, The Heritage Foundation’s veteran defense analyst reveal, it may very well increase the likelihood of proliferation and miscalculation.
Today’s world of emerging new nuclear powers demands a different concept of strategic deterrence than a contradictory combination of the retaliation-based deterrence of the Cold War and President Obama’s commitment to nuclear disarmament policies—enshrined in New START. A throwback to the bipolar world of the Cold War, New START places mutual nuclear threats at the heart of the U.S.-Russia relationship. Worse, it assumes that attempts to defend the United States and its allies with missile defenses against strategic attack are destabilizing. This model is outdated and ill-suited to the emerging nuclear landscape and a world marked by the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
A proper alternative to New START begins with a concept of deterrence by denial, which leads to the adoption of a protect-and-defend strategy. This concept of deterrence relies on the federal government seeking to protect and defend the United States and its allies against strategic attacks and convincing would-be adversaries that any attempted attacks will fail to achieve their political and military purposes.
This approach is more flexible and better matched to reducing the risk of the use of nuclear weapons in a setting in which strategic nuclear weapons have proliferated. Rather than the old Cold War “balance of terror,” this strategy calls for broader strategic postures that are more reliant on conventional armaments (prompt global strike weapons) and strategic defenses, including ballistic missile defenses.
Notably, the extension of a concept for deterrence that relies more heavily on conventional and defensive systems has the natural effect of creating more room for arms control to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. This effect is reinforced by the need of states to shift scarce financial resources away from nuclear weapons to conventional and defensive systems.
This new approach to arms control will reduce the incentive for states to increase the number of strategic nuclear arms. And it will reduce U.S. and Russian reliance on nuclear weapons— ironically, two objectives put forward by the Obama administration.
Co-authored by Michaela Bendikova.