Biggest is not necessarily best


Picture of David A. Andelman
David A. Andelman

Executive Director of The RedLines Project

David A. Andelman is Editor Emeritus at the World Policy Journal & Columnist at CNN Opinion

There are any number of points of friction these days between the United States and Russia. But largely lost in the shuffle is what would potentially be the greatest threat of all to international order and stability ‒ an abrogation by either side of a treaty that is only rarely considered nowadays: New START.

New START has its roots 30 years ago in Reykjavik, Iceland, when United States President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev met for the second of their summit conferences. There, the world came as close as it ever has to doing away entirely with nuclear arms: the Soviet leader proposed a phased end to all nuclear weapons over 10 years. Reagan rejected the proposal, as it was tied directly to the suspension of his Star Wars missile defence system, which was ill-conceived but enjoyed the status of a pet project.

While Star Wars failed to survive, a succession of treaties between the United States, the Soviet Union and now Russia, have eaten away at the two superpowers’ colossal stockpiles of nuclear arms. The latest, New START, was agreed in 2010. Like its predecessors, it was little noticed but most effective. Until now.

Strategic arms reduction dates back to 1969, when talks began in Helsinki between the two Cold War superpowers leading to the May 1972 signing of the SALT I treaty. But multiple independently-targeted missile warheads threatened to increase dramatically both sides’ firepower, adding a new layer of instability. An Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty then limited the number of such missiles and warheads. After more fraught negotiations, Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter signed the comprehensive SALT II agreement in Vienna on June 18, 1979.

Why did Vladimir Putin choose this moment to cross a clearly-defined red line?

The United States never ratified SALT II in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan six months after it was signed. But it was effective. Though Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, roundly criticized SALT II, he nevertheless had the good sense never to repudiate it. Instead, he opened a long series of discussions with his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the START treaty. This was signed by Reagan’s successor George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev. Its successor, New START, was signed by Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev in 2010.

This parade of treaties succeeded in reducing the numbers of active nuclear weapons from 68,000 in 1984 to 10,100 today, of which only 4,000 are actively deployed ‒ a global figure that includes a host of new nuclear-armed nations. As of September, the United States had 1,393 deployed nuclear warheads and Russia 1,565.

But this achievement is in jeopardy. Part of the problem is Russian attempts to come right up to or even step over the carefully drawn lines of the prevailing New START accord. Another part is a misunderstanding of the horror that any single one of these weapons could wreak.

Late last year, Russia secretly moved toward deployment of a nuclear-tipped ground-launched cruise missile system. This would be a violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by Reagan and Gorbachev that remains in effect today. The INF bans all land-based intermediate range missiles, and it has led to the scrapping of 2,692 SS-20 and Pershing II missiles by the two sides. In another pointed gesture, on October 26, he personally oversaw the test firing of four nuclear-capable land, air and submarine-based ballistic missiles.

So why did Vladimir Putin choose this moment to cross a clearly-defined red line? It may have been a response to the first telephone conversation between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, when the Russian leader raised an extension of the New START treaty due to expire in 2021. Trump attacked it as another “bad deal”, an Obama-era document that favoured Russia. Putin drew a conclusion that was as little based on facts as was Trump’s rant ‒ that the United States was prepared to throw new START into the same historical dustbin as the multi-power Iran treaty. And so, the potential for a major-power arms race was raised yet another notch.

The back story is even more troubling. At about the same time, in a Pentagon briefing for Trump detailing the global military preparedness of the United States, a slide showed the dramatic reduction in deployed nuclear weapons from the time of the Cold War to today. Trump was shocked. An individual who has long believed that biggest is best, suddenly found that his arsenal was shrinking. He failed to understand that dramatic technological advances in targeting, potency and reliability mean that for today’s nuclear arsenals, more is not necessarily best.

For the moment, rational voices seem to have restrained Trump’s instinct that biggest is best

One reason is that the added financial burden of suddenly ramping up production and deployment of weapons takes resources away from other desperately-needed military or civilian projects. Second, and even more critical for global stability, such an ill-considered decision would lead inevitably to an abrogation of a half century of work in arms reduction, an end to all existing treaty obligations and a reduced likelihood that any future treaty would be truly binding.

But the greatest impact would be on the size and stability of the arsenals kept by countries that have joined the nuclear club since the signing of the first strategic arms treaty. What possible incentive is there for the other six nuclear powers – Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel ‒ to restrain the growth of their stockpiles, or for such nascent powers as Iran or North Korea to put a brake on their ambitions? Moreover, it is possible that one of these thousands of nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorist groups, so there would be no restraint on how they might be deployed and against whom.

For the moment, rational voices seem to have restrained Trump’s instinct that biggest is best. The two preeminent nuclear nations ‒ Russia and America‒must set a model for restraint if there is to be any hope of limiting the spread of these weapons. Putin must understand the impact of his every action on a foe apparently prepared to act with few restraints. Only then will the world have a chance to make progress towards a goal of zero-nukes ‒ as unlikely as this might appear today.

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