A Genuine New Start? Obama Is No Reagan on Nuclear Disarmament

President Obama's arms control policy is rooted in the outdated doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, as can be seen in the logic underpinning the New START treaty. Until he articulates a new vision of arms control for a multipolar world, Obama's goal of nuclear abolition will not be realized.

A Commentary by Amanda Kempa

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the signing of the New START treaty in Prague on April 8, 2010.

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the signing of the New START treaty in Prague on April 8, 2010.

A recent appeal in the Washington Post by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the US Senate to ratify the New START treaty began by quoting former President Ronald Reagan's well-known aphorism "trust but verify."

The reference was fitting, as no president since Reagan has been as committed to the goal of nuclear abolition as President Barack Obama. Unlike Reagan, however, Obama's vision of arms control is largely shaped by the Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Indeed, although it is clearly in the best interest of US national security, the logic underpinning the New START treaty is rooted in MAD. Until the Obama administration articulates a new vision of arms control for a post-Cold War, multipolar world as Reagan did for a bipolar one, the president's goal of nuclear abolition will not be realized.

During the Cold War, MAD came to dominate the nuclear relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. The doctrine posited that nuclear deterrence rested on each side retaining the ability to inflict severe damage on the other, even if hit with a first strike. Reagan disliked MAD intensely. He found the idea of intentionally basing stability on the possibility of civilians being killed on a massive scale to be immoral and dangerous. As he put it, MAD was like an Old West standoff with "two westerners standing in a saloon aiming their guns at each others' head -- permanently."

Furthermore, Reagan appeared to understand another limitation of the doctrine: Even if mutual vulnerability deters your adversary from attacking you, how do you ensure it does not attack your allies? With your own population essentially being held hostage, how do you retaliate? At best, MAD makes the extension of reliable security guarantees to allies extremely problematic. At worst, it can prompt nuclear proliferation, with insecure allies feeling compelled to develop nuclear deterrents of their own.

Overturning the System

Reagan's thinking on this dilemma focused on two main ideas: strategic missile defense (SDI) which would provide US allies with a credible security guarantee and that he hoped would eventually be globalized, coupled with arms control treaties whose ultimate objective was the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Thus, although for Reagan agreements that limited the number of nuclear weapons or improved verification procedures were a crucial first step in arms control, they were not an end in themselves. Hence his insistence that the name of US-Soviet arms control negotiations be changed from SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) to START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks), to underscore the point that the goal was to reduce and ultimately abolish nuclear weapons, not merely to limit them. The merits of Reagan's approach are debatable. However, the fact that it was a clear theoretical break with previous US arms control strategy that had been based on intentionally maintaining equivalence of forces and the potential for mutual destruction, is not. Reagan's goal was not to stabilize the system but to overturn it.

This is not the case with the New START treaty, nor is it with the Obama administration's overall approach to arms control. Despite its name, the focus of New START is on limiting yet maintaining nuclear forces rather than on Obama's stated goal of abolishing them. Indeed, at the treaty's core is the idea that continuing "to maintain a robust nuclear deterrent," as Secretaries Clinton and Gates described it in their Washington Post op-ed, is the basis of preventing nuclear conflict between the US and Russia -- and, by logical extension, between other countries as well. The administration contradicts itself when it claims that its objective is a world free of nuclear weapons and then publicly asserts that the nation's security is dependent on them. This is not to make the naïve argument that the US should disarm unilaterally, but rather that the administration must present at least some idea of how these two claims will be bridged. Merely stating that New START will set the stage for future negations on tactical nuclear weapons is not the same as articulating a coherent strategy.

This is also not to say that the ratification of New START was not essential. By decreasing the number of deployable nuclear weapons held by each country from 2,200 to 1,500 while increasing transparency by creating better verification procedures, the treaty clearly strengthens US security. It will no doubt also contribute to the "reset" of US relations with Russia. Moreover, having the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals reach such an agreement sends an important message to the rest of the world.

Rather, it is that the administration's focus on bilateral agreements such as New START does not take into account the changed post-Cold War environment and, ultimately, distracts attention from greater nuclear threats. During the Cold War, an arms control policy that centered on bilateral treaties with the only entity that posed a real nuclear threat made sense. In a post-Soviet, multipolar world where non-state actors pose as serious a threat as states, it does not. The US and Russia are no longer enemies and have formally declared that they are allied against terrorism. To continue to interpret deterrence as requiring the preservation of massive but equal nuclear arsenals with the concomitant threat of mutual destruction is misguided. A new understanding of deterrence in a multipolar world is required. Thus, unless integrated into a broader approach to arms control and non-proliferation, bilateral treaties such as these do not sufficiently address proliferation by other powerful states or the more imminent threat posed by terrorists and rogue states.

Ambitious Ideas

There are signs that President Obama's arms control policy is headed in this direction. He recently adopted one of Reagan's more radical non-proliferation initiatives when he offered to extend the US missile defense shield to include Russia. Despite strong objections from almost all his advisers and the fact that it contradicted all previous US arms control strategy, Reagan believed that including the Russians in missile defense was the only way the US could provide a credible security guarantee to its European allies without prompting the Soviet Union to develop new, more lethal offensive weapons to overcome SDI.

Yet Reagan's thinking on missile defense went beyond even this, as must Obama's. Once both superpowers were secure, Regan envisioned globalizing missile defense technology, a step that he believed would ultimately render large-scale nuclear warfare, and thus nuclear weapons, obsolete. It is doubtful that Obama would entertain such an ambitious -- and probably unrealistic -- idea. Yet the notion that treaties such as START and the extension of missile defense can be used as the basis of a broader strategy which rejects the logic of mutual assured destruction is sound and must be thought through. Just as importantly, once formulated, it must be articulated clearly at home and abroad. This is the only way the international trust and wide-ranging cooperation that is necessary to address contemporary threats will be built.

Clearly, other factors need to be considered as well. How imbalances in conventional forces contribute to proliferation, and thus the way conventional arms control should be linked to broader arms control efforts, is one. The role the expansion of nuclear-free zones should play, as well as ways the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty can be strengthened to penalize violators, are others. The list is extensive, and shaping such varied ideas and objectives into a coherent strategy that will overcome MAD once and for all will be challenging and require some unconventional thinking. But if Reagan attempted it, so can Obama.

Amanda Kempa holds a PhD in modern history from Oxford University. She is a former fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, and is currently a research scholar at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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