The Dangerous Allure of Arms Control

The Ringwraiths of arms control are again with us, returned from well-deserved obscurity, and back in the saddle in Washington. Through public statements and private preparations the Obama administration is signaling clearly that its approach to Russia will center on Cold War-era arms control precepts and objectives.

Although the Washington-Moscow relationship has, at Moscow's behest, become increasingly contentious and unpleasant, arms control is an odd and backward-looking way to try to improve relations and ameliorate Russia's objectionable international conduct. A long Cold War history demonstrates that arms control tends to make the relationship even more adversarial than it needs to be, concentrates attention on peripheral issues, and fails to deliver the security that supposedly is its central objective.

The Obama arms control agenda reflects the longstanding, attractive and woefully simplistic notion that ever-lower numbers of Russian and American nuclear weapons will create a more stable strategic relationship, diminishing the threat of nuclear war. Arms controllers, relying on this superficial analysis for decades, argued that reducing weapons levels would not harm U.S. security because nuclear war was so destructive it was simply unthinkable, a concept known as "automatic deterrence." Later, they adopted a slightly more nuanced position, acknowledging the need for a small nuclear force that could survive a first strike, thus providing a "second strike" capability. These flawed theories are back from the dead.

We now see suggestions for U.S. weapons levels that have more to do with numerology than national security.

Accordingly, we now see suggestions for U.S. weapons levels that have more to do with numerology than national security. Moreover, the Obama approach appears to ignore the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which represented a substantial change in managing strategic relations between America and Russia, a change also reflected in U.S. development of strategic missile defense capabilities. Ironically, the treaty actually reflected the reduced role of nuclear weapons in American strategy and enhanced roles for long-range, precision-guided conventional weapons that the Obama administration now risks reversing by returning to the arms-control approach of the SALT (strategic arms limitations) and START (strategic arms reduction) models.

What should we do instead, and on what should Congress insist before the negotiations proceed beyond the point of no return?

First, we must understand that agreed-upon levels of nuclear weapons address only the most visible areas of military competition, not others that actually may be more important. This has been a central fallacy of arms control since the post-World War I naval arms negotiations, ignoring as it does wide and important variances between the United States and Russia, such as weapons production capabilities, levels of tactical nuclear weapons, intelligence assets, and total national economic strength.

Moreover, U.S. nuclear capabilities provide a deterrence umbrella for its allied countries, whereas Russia plays no such positive role.

Thus, the two countries are simply not "symmetrical," but treaties with specific warhead limits gave the illusion they are.

Second, the United States should decide what levels of nuclear forces we actually need, and make that our objective, not pursuing an arbitrary number and then trying to find national security justification for it. The latter approach is not only dangerous but opens us to manipulation by our negotiating adversaries, since under this approach one number has no greater intrinsic security value than another. This is especially true when we understand that no current or prior arms control treaty has ever actually required destruction of existing warheads, nor do we have any known verification methodology that could actually demonstrate compliance even if we could reach agreement on warhead destruction as an objective.

U.S. nuclear capabilities provide a deterrence umbrella for its allied countries, whereas Russia plays no such positive role.

Third, how we "count" nuclear capabilities is important. This is not a merely technical issue, but carries profound implications for both our nuclear and conventional capabilities. Under START counting rules, weapons levels were imputed based on the capabilities of delivery systems, rather than actual warhead levels. Thus, for example, each Soviet SS-18, capable of carrying 10 nuclear warheads was imputed to do so no matter how many were actually under the nosecones.

Counting actual numbers is far more accurate. In the Treaty of Moscow, we did so by counting only operationally deployed strategic warheads rather than using imputed levels derived from artificial counting rules. Not only was this more accurate, it freed up large numbers of delivery systems for conventional warheads, making them more useful against the non-nuclear threats we increasingly face.

Abandoning Treaty of Moscow concepts and retreating to the START approach would severely impede U.S. conventional capabilities well into the future without in any way improving the U.S. strategic nuclear posture.

Arms control is one area where there will be substantial "change" between the Bush and Obama administrations, one fraught with considerable risks, especially if future negotiations embrace, as Russia wants, missile defense and space-based capabilities.

The real arms control debate is not between those relaxed about nuclear war and those seeking to avoid it, but between those who approach the problem realistically and empirically, and those who approach it as a matter of dogma. Unfortunately, the Ringwraiths now have the upper hand.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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John R.
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  • 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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