April 12, 2010 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Reagan Would Not Start With Todays Russia

President Obama wants a world without nuclear weapons. So did President Reagan. The similarities end there.

How we get to a nuke-free world matters. To mitigate the threat of nuclear war, treaty negotiators must understand what they are up against. That includes understanding how the other parties plan to use nukes, both as military assets and as foreign policy tools.

Reagan knew that. But it's not clear that Obama's negotiators appreciate Moscow's evident intent to keep using its potent nuclear threat to advance its foreign policy interests.

Like Reagan, Obama believes America must lead the way to nuclear disarmament. Unlike Reagan, he believes this requires an assertion of "moral" leadership, to be demonstrated simply by reducing our nuclear stockpile and refusing to modernize the U.S. arsenal. It's a false premise.

In the post-Cold War era, U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles have atrophied, yet the nuclear threat has increased. Today, there are many more nuclear-armed states, and some are far less stable -- and far more irresponsible -- than the U.S.S.R.

Reagan recognized that the ultimate goal of arms negotiations is to make the world safer, more stable and more free. To eliminate the need for large nuclear arsenals, he went about eliminating the dependence -- both ours and others' -- on massive nuclear attack as the guarantor of security.

Thus, the first items on Reagan's agenda were building up U.S. conventional forces and introducing missile defenses. That allowed his negotiators to approach arms control agreements from a position of strength.

Obama has it backward. He started with cutting back on defense -- especially in acquisition programs. Bye-bye, F-22.

He also cut missile defense, starting with systems to protect the homeland. But even that wasn't enough to make the Russians happy.

"The problem is our America partners are developing missile defenses," objected Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last December. "Our partners may come to feel completely safe." That sounds like a leader who still thinks that maintaining the threat of nuclear attack is a good idea. If not, why is it a "problem" for Americans to feel safe?

Reagan understood his adversaries. Obama does not.

Russia wants an arms control treaty to solidify its position as a pre-eminent nuclear power, one on par with America. Atomic diplomacy is a cornerstone of Russian foreign policy.

Iran and North Korea have no use for arms treaties. But our eagerness to enter a pact with a lesser power like Russia only signals to them that America is indeed a declining power. And that gives them reason to think that, by continuing their nuclear weapons programs, they can become even more powerful forces on the world stage.

Just last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad displayed the "nuclear bully" mind-set Reagan understood so well. "You should know," Ahmadinejad bellowed, "that the more hostile you are, the stronger an incentive our people will have, it will double. ..." In his mind, this treaty reveals a weaker America, one less likely to back its rhetoric of freedom with deeds.

Perversely, a wrongheaded treaty that embraces nuclear disarmament while eschewing nuclear defense and improvement of conventional forces actually encourages a new nuclear arms race -- or worse.

Reagan's sound vision for "rendering nuclear weapons obsolete" started with first ensuring robust defenses, then reducing the nuclear stockpile appropriately. Obama has taken a "reduce first, beef up defense later (if ever)" approach.

It's a path that leads to even greater danger, not to "zero." Doubtless President Obama is motivated by the very best of intentions. But in a world of proliferating nuclear power, we should remember where a road paved only with good intentions leads.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Washington Examiner