Obama's Obsession with Reduction
A Prescription for a Weaker America

The Obama administration recently has launched campaigns advocating its key arms-control initiatives. These public-relations offensives are to support a key treaty being finalized with Russia, the ratification of previously blocked treaties, and the advancement of more arms-control negotiations. Although hitherto overlooked in the media, President Obama's arms-control priorities are major components of his upcoming foreign policy agenda.

Arms control's complexities and dense jargon typically have limited its consideration to a cadre of high priests and priestesses, largely hidden from public view. This obscurity has been most unfortunate because the stakes involved in misguided arms-control policy are extraordinarily high. Precisely because of the stakes, the general public should be as fully informed and involved as in any other national security issue.

Much of arms-control theology rests on mistaken premises whose consequences can be highly detrimental to U.S. national security interests. There is real danger, for example, in negotiating numerical weapons ceilings, such as on numbers of nuclear warheads, unrelated to our real strategic needs. Mere numerical targets typically do not reflect the opposing sides' differing global interests and obligations, their asymmetrical conventional military and intelligence capabilities or their varying economic strengths.

The positions of the United States and Russia are not parallel, and roughly equivalent warhead limits impair Washington far more than Moscow.

Undeterred by these caveats, however, Mr. Obama will announce imminently a treaty with Russia limiting strategic nuclear weapons. Administration statements (and press leaks) indicate that the new limits on warheads will be below those in the 2002 Treaty of Moscow. There, Russia and America agreed on ceilings of 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads by 2012, with the clear understanding that U.S. warhead holdings would be near the top of that range. The Obama agreement's new limits are said to be 1,500 to 1,675 warheads, meaning that we will face significant reductions--and well before 2012. Even if Russia falls to the bottom of the new range, its reductions will be small compared to ours.

But the positions of the United States and Russia are not parallel, and roughly equivalent warhead limits impair Washington far more than Moscow. America has global commitments to many allies, from NATO to the Pacific, protected by our nuclear umbrella. The range of threats and dangerous contingencies we face, such as from terrorists and rogue states like North Korea and Iran, is substantially greater and more challenging than what confronts Russia, which essentially has no allies to protect. Squeezing down U.S. force levels is therefore not only a prescription for making America weaker, but for making its allies less safe and less confident in our ability to protect them.

Moreover, the United States is far ahead of Russia in using advanced delivery systems (ballistic and cruise missiles and heavy bombers) to carry conventional payloads. This is a significant element of America's capacity to meet its far-flung alliance commitments and other vital interests worldwide. Limiting the available numbers of delivery systems for conventional warheads, as the treaty apparently will do, is a massive retreat to outmoded arms-control "counting rules" that overwhelmingly will benefit Russia at the expense of America and its allies. It is as though President Obama's advisers do not understand how harmful reducing delivery systems will be to the Pentagon's strategy of increased reliance on conventional rather than nuclear warheads.

Perhaps even more disturbing are press reports that Moscow is still insisting on constraining U.S. missile-defense capabilities. The Obama administration's seeming unwillingness to flatly reject such constraints represents a dramatic retreat from President George W. Bush's unqualified determination to create national missile-defense capabilities. Mr. Bush's decision to withdraw from the badly conceived, outdated Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 was a major step forward for America's defense capabilities and the security of our civilian population. For Mr. Obama to retreat here, even in minor ways, would be a mistake of extraordinary magnitude. If he ultimately unveils a treaty that limits our missile-defense programs, however minutely, that alone would be more than sufficient reason to defeat it in the Senate, whatever its limits on warheads and delivery systems.

The impending U.S.-Russia treaty is only the start of the arms-control renaissance. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced last week, for example, that the administration will push to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was defeated in the Senate in 1999. It hasn't gotten better with age. Multilateral negotiations over arms in outer space, fissile material production and conventional arms restrictions (which well could be an international effort to limit or proscribe the civilian ownership of guns) are all in line for presidential attention.

The Senate can and should examine each treaty on its individual merits. But the proper criterion for support must be whether any given agreement enhances America's national security. This is no place for abstract and naive theories or numbers games at the expense of strategy.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/yuri4u80

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About the Author

 

John R.
Bolton
  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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