It’s Not About the Treaty

What Prague means, and doesn't mean, for the future of nuclear weapons.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Arms control is not magic, even if it seems to have high priests and secret codes.

The lesson of the Cold War is that all those complex negotiations and treaties are not by themselves agents of change, but the result of much deeper, underlying forces and the actions of people. Sure, a treaty is vital to lock in decisions and prevent cheating. But of far greater importance are the reasons that brought the two sides to the table in the first place: economics, politics, technology, and military power, as well as the role of leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The most effective nuclear arms-control measure of all time was not a treaty, but rather the demise of the Soviet Union and the superpower competition along with it. What caused it? A dysfunctional economic and political system imploded.

So let’s hold off on the overheated hyperbole about the Prague treaty that U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are set to sign Thursday. As long as the weapons are still around and on alert, it is unquestionably worthwhile to limit them in a treaty with solid verification provisions. Obama promised last year in his speech in Prague to deliver a treaty that is "sufficiently bold." This one is sufficient, but it’s modest, not bold.

High hopes for treaties have often not been realized. Two major treaties negotiated with difficulty, Salt II and Start II, never went into force. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention entered into force, but was so toothless the Soviet Union violated it immediately and seriously. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was abrogated by the United States.

Instead of celebrating this week and breathing a sigh of relief, what we should be doing is getting ready to seize the next big opportunity to reduce the nuclear danger. Russia still looms large. Together, Russia and the United States hold 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. It is vital to move on to the next phase: reducing tactical nuclear weapons, dealing with the large "hedge" of nuclear warheads in reserve, resolving conflict over missile defense, shoring up the weakening global nonproliferation regime, and combating terrorism, among other things.

Yet to do this we must see clearly the underlying forces shaping Russia. The Kremlin may not be eager to negotiate or concede anything soon, wary as it is of NATO at its doorstep and the weakness of its conventional forces. Whoever really governs Russia — whether it’s President Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — may want to stand tall and not negotiate further reductions. Even so, we should try. We inherited a promising age after the Cold War, when the superpowers are no longer at the brink, so let’s make good use of it. It can’t be as hard as making a deal with the Soviets’ long-serving General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and steely Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

The Russia challenge is far from the only nuclear dilemma Obama faces. In Iran and North Korea, two of the most-pressing nuclear-proliferation cases of our day, there are clear signs of internal tumult. Iran’s leadership struggle and North Korea’s faltering economic experiments are relevant to the nuclear question — hugely — perhaps even more than the episodic P5+1 or six-party talks the international community convenes to bring them to the negotiating table. Trouble on the streets or desperation among the elites, might drive these leaders to pursue nuclear weapons despite sanctions and pressure from outside. Perhaps, too, pressure might trigger a sudden change that would end their nuclear ambitions. Here, also, history suggests a negotiated solution is unlikely.

Flash back to the long-forgotten Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks on conventional forces in Europe, which began in 1973 and dragged on and on between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The negotiations, which were aimed at reducing the huge armies in Europe, never went anywhere. Then, suddenly, on Dec. 7, 1988, in a speech at the United Nations, Gorbachev announced unilateral reductions in the Soviet armed forces of 500,000 men, including six tank divisions in Eastern Europe. In one day, Gorbachev accomplished more than MBFR had in 15 years. He did it for his own reasons, which were rooted in those underlying forces that were shaking the Soviet Union to its foundations.

The 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear missiles with stringent verification, was perhaps the most-successful arms-control deal of the last quarter-century. Yet it could not have happened but for the fact that Gorbachev acted so radically different from his predecessors. He believed the arms race was an albatross, sapping the resources he would need at home to make socialism work. He did something about it, even if the Soviet system could not in the end be salvaged.

Gorbachev had the courage to reverse a decision of his predecessor. In the late 1970s, with Brezhnev ailing, the Soviet Union blundered in deploying the Pioneer, a new generation of medium-range missile, in Europe, apparently not expecting that this would lead to apprehension in the United States and among its allies. As a counterweight, in 1979 NATO decided to station 108 single-warhead Pershing II and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, while seeking to negotiate. Reagan proposed in 1981 to eliminate this entire class of medium-range missiles, but the Soviets refused and negotiations went nowhere. The first U.S. missiles were deployed in late 1983.

The Pershing II was feared for its accuracy and speed — the missile could fly at nearly Mach 8, greater than 6,000 miles per hour, and carried high-precision guidance systems. These were missiles that the Soviet leaders worried could lead to decapitation — wiping them out while they sat in the Kremlin.

When Gorbachev took office in March 1985, he and some others had already figured out, privately, that the Pioneer deployments had backfired. "I would even go so far as to characterize it as an unforgivable adventure," he later wrote, "embarked on by the previous Soviet leadership under pressure from the military-industrial complex."

When it was signed in 1987, the INF Treaty eliminated 1,846 Soviet Pioneers and 846 U.S. Pershing II missiles. Score one for those big, underlying forces, and individual leadership.

No doubt, in the coming weeks and months, the White House will be tempted to wrap the Prague treaty in all kinds of high-flying rhetoric. But past experience suggests it would be wise to avoid hype and exaggeration. In 1960, John F. Kennedy warned that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in a "missile gap" that he later found didn’t exist. Nor did the "window of vulnerability" Reagan warned about in 1980. President Bill Clinton signed an agreement with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994 to retarget intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would not prevent them from being retargeted in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless, Clinton boasted in campaign speeches he had "led the world back from the brink of nuclear disaster. There’s not a single nuclear missile pointed at an American citizen today for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age." It was a huge overstatement of what he had accomplished.

For Obama, who has voiced the dream of a world without nuclear weapons, Prague is just the very first step. Arms control is a tool, but no secret codes or counting rules will make the coming tasks easier. They require heavy lifting.

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