You can only imagine how President Obama’s speechwriters must have been scrambling to reconcile their boss’ expected big pitch on new nuclear-disarmament initiatives and the North Korean nuclear test the day before the State of the Union address.
The test was not exactly what Team Obama or his supporters in the arms-control community were hoping for. But perhaps it was a fitting wake-up call—not to mention an opportunity to inject some rethinking—and some reality-- into the administration’s misguided plans for our nuclear security.
It was believed, based on reporting by David Sanger in The New York Times two week ago, that the President would use last week’s highly visible speech to lay out a detailed vision for new strategic-arms cuts. He clearly chose not to do so.
But building on the 2009 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with the Kremlin, the White House is reportedly considering further reducing deployed nuclear weapons to around 1,000, down from more than 1,700. (New START requires both Russia and the United States to limit their accountable deployed weapons to 1,550 by 2018.)
While the President didn’t mention specific weapon-reduction numbers as some thought he would, he did say that: “America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.”
After issuing mild warnings to both North Korea and Iran for their nuclear programs, Obama added that “we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands—because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.”
While fairly open to interpretation, the phrase “willingness to lead” likely refers to the United States taking the initiative, such as setting the “moral example” for others, on nuclear disarmament, whether that means multilateral, bilateral—or even unilateral cuts.
In other words, if we do it, others will follow.
It’s as if the president is some sort of Proliferation Pied Piper, that is, by playing an alluring tune of disarmament, others (North Korea and eventually Iran) will follow him down the road to “Nuclear Zero”—or total nuclear disarmament.
It’s a wonderful idea, but like the Pied Piper, it’s likely a fairy tale.
First, what makes the president believe this approach will work? Sure, Russia may buy into further strategic-weapons cuts to reduce the operational costs of their current arsenal as they did under New START or, more likely, in exchange for limiting U.S. missile defense.
But beyond that, so far Moscow—despite numerous efforts— has refused to negotiate with Washington on their tactical nuclear stockpile, which may exceed American and NATO numbers by threefold or more. Further strategic reductions—without addressing Russia’s tactical holdings—could well undermine America’s extended deterrence and even give Moscow nuclear superiority over Washington.
And what makes the White House believe that our nuclear reductions would make North Korea follow suit? Pyongyang has just conducted its third—and most powerful—nuclear test since its first in 2006.
Early seismic data indicates the North Korean test was not only successful, but was also the most powerful to date. And while unconfirmed, Pyongyang claims the test used “a miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously [tested].”
This assertion of “miniaturization” is significant when paired with North Korea’s successful satellite launch in December, advancing their long-range missile capabilities that might someday be mated with a nuclear warhead—and likely aimed at the United States.
Then there is Iran. Tehran seems to be doing anything but decelerating their nuclear (weapons) program. Indeed, it’s expected to have a nuclear weapon within the next few years, and the U.S. government believes Iran may have ICBM capability by 2015.
Lastly, has the White House taken China’s nuclear modernization program into consideration? Indeed, do we have a handle on the Chinese nuclear arsenal such as number of operational tactical and strategic warheads?
It’s not clear.
Without question, Beijing’s strategic buildup should be of concern. China has moved from a fixed, silo-based monad in the direction of a robust road-mobile and sea-based nuclear deterrent. A revitalized air leg, constituting a full triad, may not be far behind.
Moreover, Beijing’s reported development of a three-thousand-mile-long tunnel network—known as the “Underground Great Wall”—which supports the People’s Liberation Army’s Second Artillery (ballistic missile forces) raises a number of important questions.
Considering China’s massive military buildup and expected grand international ambitions, some which may conflict with the U.S. interests, a rush to nuclear parity by Beijing with Washington is a distinct—and perhaps less-than-predictable—possibility.
The point is that while no one would argue that a world without nuclear weapons would be a desirable one, the idea flies in the face of troubling trends—and the probability of any number of outliers in a dreamy nuclear-free world.
The important thing is that we preserve our strategic security in an increasingly proliferated environment. For the moment, that means developing robust missile defenses and maintaining and modernizing our nuclear arsenal—not sacrificing our well-being on the altar of wishful thinking.
-Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.
First appeared in The National Interest.