Rushing Into Another New START Pact Would Be Foolish

The December 2010 ratification of the U.S.-Russia New START strategic arms treaty was barely printed in final ratified form before the Obama administration and supporters signaled a willingness to rush into a successor arms pact.  To do so would be a huge mistake.

First, New START is the first strategic arms pact negotiated with Russia since Vladimir Putin turned away from the near-alliance against Islamist terror he had formed in the early years of the Bush administration.  Prudence dictates that we assess Russia’s record of compliance with the new treaty—to the degree that weakened verification procedures in arms pacts of the past 20 years permit—before rushing pell-mell into a second pact.

Second, where violations are discovered, we need to see how Moscow responds to complaints.  Likely they will do what the former Soviet Union did during the Cold War under the 1972 SALT I accord: flagrantly violate the treaty and deny guilt, knowing that without their agreement, we could not legally establish, let alone actually enforce, compliance.  Any new treaty should be predicated upon restoring the stronger verification provisions of the START arms treaties.

Third, Russia has already indicated it wants an equal vote in whether ballistic missile defense systems based in Eastern Europe are launched—even if the launch in question comes from Russia.  So much for the supposed agreement reached on missile defense to keep it out of the New START Treaty.  Any successor treaty must specify that missile defense is outside New START coverage.

Fourth, cutting deployed warheads from New START’s limit, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has proposed, presupposes that we know the lowest safe deployment level for our strategic nuclear arsenal, versus not only existing but emerging threats.  No one can possibly know what level fully fits the bill.  Absent a compelling reason for cutting more now, we had best keep our strategic powder dry, and watch as threats evolve.

For example, China could decide to ramp up its nuclear arsenal in pursuit of strategic nuclear superiority.  We can say, theologically, that nuclear superiority does not matter.  But history teaches that non-Western powers look at nuclear weapons differently in key aspects.  To believe otherwise is to indulge in the strategic trap of “mirror-imaging” how our adversaries will behave.

In 1962, a vastly overmatched Soviet Union backed away from nuclear war with the United States over offensive missiles secretly based in Cuba.  A top Soviet diplomat told one of ours in the aftermath that we would never catch Moscow like that again.  Moscow embarked upon a quarter-century massive nuclear buildup that surpassed our total arsenal in 1978 and continued on to 1986.  It did so even though America had frozen its own arsenal in 1967.

And then came the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Though Moscow had yet to fully catch up, it acted far more aggressively in 1973 than in 1962.  Whereas in 1962 Moscow began to ratchet down as soon as it became clear that the U.S. would not back away, in 1973 Moscow raised the stakes as the Mideast regional conflict progressed.  We were, in the phrase coined in 1962, “eyeball to eyeball” with our superpower antagonist.

Moscow sent transport planes loaded with troops toward the region, threatening to land them unless the U.S. made Israel withdraw from west of the Suez Canal.  Upon hearing this, President Richard Nixon ordered the Soviet planes shot down if they entered closed air space.  Moscow eventually backed away when Israel committed to negotiate withdrawal, but its more assertive behavior was clearly predicated on its having nearly caught up to the U.S. in the strategic nuclear balance.  Not even the U.S. declaring the highest nuclear alert status since the 1962 confrontation had made Moscow blink when “eyeball to eyeball” with the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

Nuclear arsenals of even small size can make a difference.  Does anyone think that if Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons in 1990, the year he invaded Kuwait, he would have faced a coalition military action to eject his forces from that country?  Would Turkey or Saudi Arabia have allowed any coalition forces to be based on their territory under nuclear threat from Saddam?  Would NATO have initiated military action on behalf of ragtag rebels against Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi, if Gaddafi possessed nuclear weapons?  Does not North Korea’s nuclear club status immunize it from preemptive attack?

Two real-world historical lessons:  First, nuclear status matters if at least one power behaves differently in any situation in which at least one power is a nuclear state.  For that belief will cause one or more states in a crisis to behave differently, thus altering the calculus of risks and potential consequences that may arise out of a crisis as it unfolds.  Second:  The closer an aggressive nuclear state is to nuclear parity versus its rivals, let alone if it has nuclear superiority, the more assertive its conduct will be on the global geostrategic stage.

Arms control is a tool, not a theological end in itself.  There are good and bad agreements.  The administration should not rush into a second pact.  The Senate should reject a second superpower strategic arms reduction treaty as premature.