After President Obama made another pledge to reduce nuclear arms in Berlin last week, the underlying message seems to be that, if the United States continues marching down the road toward nuclear zero, other nuclear nations such as Russia will follow suit. Ironically, this policy depends on American influence while simultaneously reducing it.
Russia recognizes this and thus has no incentive to reduce its own arsenal after walking away as the clear winner in the New START negotiations.
New START allows the Russians to increase and modernize their nuclear arsenal while requiring the U.S. to cut its own. Nevertheless, Obama now asserts that this is not enough and is proposing further reductions in the U.S. arsenal in another cooperative agreement with Russia. The problem is that, as Heritage Foundation fellow Kim Holmes points out in a recent op-ed, “the Russians already have a 10-1 advantage in tactical, or shorter-range, nuclear weapons, which they want to keep.”
Obama should have considered this and other factors before making another reduction promise. The idea that a unilateral arms reduction would encourage other nations to reduce their arsenals is a fantasy.
William C. Martel of Tufts University elaborates on this point, noting in a recent article that Putin is the same Russian leader who lamented the demise of the Soviet Union and that this kind of disposition makes Putin aware that nuclear weapons “are the sole remaining symbol of [Russia’s] former superpower status.” Otherwise, Russia is a country with an impending demographic crisis, rampant corruption, and a sagging economy. Nuclear weapons are aces in Putin’s hand, and he is playing them well.
Russia also has strategic reasons to refuse Obama’s proposed policy. If anything, Russia’s refusal of nuclear arms reductions reinforces the perception that the United States cannot exert the kind of influence it once possessed. Martel puts it bluntly, “Putin’s refusal to cut nuclear arms makes him look stronger and Obama weaker.”
Finally, Martel makes a strong case that the nuclear arms environment has completely changed. Pakistan and North Korea have joined the nuclear club, and Iran is not far behind with China’s and Russia’s encouragement. U.S. allies Japan and South Korea are considering nuclear development initiatives as well.
The United States needs a robust and modernized nuclear arsenal to meet the challenges of the 21st century and to provide for the common defense.