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One-Day Wonder: The dangerous absurdity of the Bush-Putin arms treaty

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, and Ivo H. Daalder
August 2, 2002
American Prospect

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This September, when the Senate returns from its summer recess, the Foreign Relations Committee plans to vote on the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, which Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed at the Moscow Summit in May. Bush claims the treaty "will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War," but it does no such thing. Nor was this really his administration's intention. Rather, the objective, which this treaty now codifies, is to ensure that the United States retains maximum nuclear flexibility -- by enabling it to deploy its nuclear forces in any way that it wants. The result is a treaty that makes the world no safer than it was before, and much the worse for failing to achieve a genuine reduction in nuclear weapons.

Bush came to office committed to "leave the Cold War behind" and "rethink the requirements of nuclear deterrence." The United States would reduce its nuclear forces to the "lowest possible number consistent with our national security." And it would do this through unilateral action rather than through a legally binding agreement with Russia. Last November, then, Bush announced the United States would reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal over the next 10 years, from its current level of about 7,200 warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. At first, he resisted Russian demands to codify this commitment in a formal, binding agreement. But in deciding last December to withdraw the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Bush agreed to soften the blow to Moscow by affirming these offensive force reductions in a legally binding treaty.

But it is important to understand what the Moscow Treaty says -- and more important, what it doesn't say. The only legally binding commitment the United States and Russia undertake under the terms of the agreement is to deploy no more than 1,700 to 2,200 warheads on "operationally deployed" launchers by December 31, 2012. The treaty is deliberately silent on what will happen between now and then. Moreover, at the exact moment 10 years hence, when the limits on force levels go into effect, the treaty will expire, unless both parties agree otherwise. In other words, the United States and Russia are free -- except for a single day a decade from now -- to deploy as many (or as few) warheads on operationally deployed systems as they like. Yes, it is as absurd as it sounds.

Even worse, and directly undermining Bush's claim that it liquidates the Cold War's legacy, the treaty is silent on what happens to the weapons to be retired. They can be stored, put in reserve or dismantled -- whatever the parties wish. There is no obligation to liquidate anything. The treaty also says nothing about how many warheads a missile can carry or how many launchers each side can have. Russia, for example, will be free to put multiple warheads on its new land-based missile forces -- a procedure banned by the START II Treaty that the elder George Bush and Boris Yeltsin signed in January 1993. (START II, which never entered into force even though both the U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma gave their conditional consent, was slated to have been implemented by 2007.) What remains in effect is START I, a Reagan-era arms-control document that we signed with the Soviet Union, which stipulates force reductions that both nations have in fact already achieved. Now this will be augmented by an agreement to reduce U.S. and Russian forces for at least a single day 10 years from now. If either Washington or Moscow decides it does not like that constraint, it can withdraw from the treaty by giving 90-days notice. And this is called arms control!

To be sure, it is possible that 10 years from now the United States and Russia will decide to extend the life of the Moscow Treaty. It is even possible that the two nations will agree to dismantle the retired weapons. The relationship between Moscow and Washington is changing -- and for the better. Nuclear weapons, and joint measures to control them, are becoming a less contentious part of their relations.

But one cannot assume that U.S.-Russian relations will grow inexorably closer. Putin is attempting a fundamental shift in Russia's foreign policy, one that has left much of Russia's elite grumbling. Economic hardship or foreign-policy humiliation could produce an unstoppable demand to return Russian policy to its traditional antagonism to the west. One role of arms control is to guard against this danger. Yet this is precisely what the Moscow Treaty fails to do. Remarkably, an administration that prides itself on its hard-nosed realism is ignoring the first rule of international politics: Hope for the best, but guard against the worst.

What accounts for this failure? The Bush administration argues that arms control reflects old-fashioned Cold War thinking, that what is needed today are not formal, detailed agreements about mutual obligations but informal exchanges of intentions. As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice puts it, the Moscow treaty "codifies what President Bush and President Putin have decided independently are the levels needed to defend their countries ... in a way that doesn't look like an agreement that you would make with an enemy like the Soviet Union, but rather more like a defense-planning guidance with the Russians." In other words, friends don't do treaties. Putin needed a treaty and got one, but that was Bush's only concession. In keeping with true administration policy, the treaty's actual provisions were drafted to facilitate a strategy that has nothing to do with arms control.

The Bush administration does not so much object to arms control per se (although it does that as well) as it does to placing any constraints on America's freedom of action. It believes that as the most powerful nation on earth, the United States should not and cannot be constrained in ways that other lesser powers can. The Bush administration has made this abundantly clear, from the Kyoto Protocol to the ABM Treaty, the International Criminal Court to the Comprehensive Test Ban. It rejects some treaties, withdraws from others, and even engages in the novel practice of "unsigning" those it truly detests.

This Thucydidean philosophy -- that the strong do as they can and the weak suffer as they must -- is the leitmotif of the administration's foreign policy. Thus, the Nuclear Posture Review that the Pentagon sent to Congress in January raised the prospect of using nuclear weapons in the midst of a conventional conflict to attack targets capable of withstanding non-nuclear attack. This fetish for flexibility emerged even more clearly in Bush's West Point speech in June, when he embraced a new policy of preemptive nuclear war. The administration now proposes to "strike first" -- regardless of whether there is political support at home or abroad for such an action, and perhaps without proof that a threat to our safety actually exists. So much for the Constitution and 200 years of military practice.

The Moscow Treaty elevates this flexibility fetish into the law of the land. As a senior administration official told The New York Times, "What we have now agreed to do under the treaty is what we wanted to do anyway. That's our kind of treaty."

Unfortunately, it does little to liquidate the Cold War's primary legacy: many thousands of nuclear weapons. For that, a different, more ambitious agenda is necessary. Its central goal must be to marginalize nuclear weapons. That requires taking the following steps:

Reduce U.S. nuclear forces to 1,000 strategic weapons. In a world in which Russia is a friend and no other potentially hostile country has more than a few dozen strategic warheads, 1,000 nuclear warheads would deter anyone who can be deterred. As McGeorge Bundy recognized more than three decades ago, "in the real world of real political leaders ... a decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one's own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; 10 bombs on 10 cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities unthinkable." We have long lived in Bundy's real world -- and we certainly do so now.

Complete the weapons cuts by 2004. The Moscow Treaty gives both sides 10 years to implement its reductions. But because weapons can be stored, those reductions can be accomplished much more quickly. In nine months in 1991–92, the United States removed more than 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons from active duty. There is no reason why these reductions should take much longer.

Agree with Russia to eliminate all tactical nuclear weapons. The new treaty is silent about the thousands of short-range nuclear weapons the United States and Russia have in storage. They serve no military purpose, and they are precisely the kind of weapons Osama bin Laden would love to obtain.

Destroy all weapons to be retired. More than 10 years after the Cold War ended, the United States and Russia still have 30,000 nuclear weapons between them. That is a Cold War legacy we can surely do without.

Ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This treaty would create a worldwide system, including sensors in closed societies such as China and Iran, for monitoring clandestine nuclear explosions. The result would reduce the nuclear proliferation threat.

Rather than continuing with treaties that are all form and no substance, Washington and Moscow should return to the bargaining table and come back with a compact that truly makes major, enduring reductions in nuclear weapons. Yes, the United States would have to sacrifice some flexibility. But it would get something more important in return: enhanced security.