The end of the Cold War reduced both the danger of a U.S.-Russian nuclear exchange and the nuclear arsenals of the two countries. In 1991, the U.S. had approximately 10,000 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads. Last year, the U.S. cut that number to just over 2,000 under the Moscow Treaty signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. The relatively modest additional reductions agreed to by Presidents Obama and Medvedev do little to change that fundamental picture.
What has changed fundamentally is the likelihood that nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of irresponsible rulers, or terrorists who can't be deterred at all. Unfortunately, President Obama's talk about a world free of nuclear weapons seems to have little connection to the passive U.S. responses to North Korea's and Iran's nuclear activities.
There is certainly room for additional reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, but it is unlikely to have any effect on those countries. Indeed, if the new treaty constrains U.S. missile defense efforts, it could be counterproductive. Although President Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons--believing it dangerous to rely indefinitely on a balance of nuclear terror--when Mikhail Gorbachev offered to eliminate ballistic missiles in exchange for eliminating missile defenses, Reagan refused the deal.
To be serious about a world without nuclear weapons, we must face some serious questions--questions that have nothing to do with U.S. or Russian numbers:
Is the U.S. doing enough to develop effective missile defenses? How can we prevent the language in the treaty's preamble--linking offensive and defensive weapons--from blocking more ambitious U.S. missile defense efforts in the future?
What will the administration do to counter Iran's nuclear program if sanctions prove no more effective than engagement? What about North Korea? Is there no way to peacefully promote more responsible leadership in either country?
What are we doing to preserve the safety and reliability of our diminishing number of nuclear weapons?
Since we are reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons, how can we strengthen our conventional deterrent in the face of determined efforts to deny us nearby basing options?
Twenty one years ago, when the SALT II Treaty was signed, Sen. Sam Nunn (D., Ga.) believed that the most important way to reduce the danger of nuclear war was to improve U.S. conventional deterrence, and he made that a condition for Senate ratification of the treaty. Similarly, the new treaty provides an opportunity to question whether we are doing enough to confront the danger of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists and irresponsible regimes.
Paul Wolfowitz is a visiting scholar at AEI.