Command and Control

Will voters get the chance to hear the real differences between Obama and Romney on nuclear weapons?


In their upcoming Oct. 22 debate, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will finally go head-to-head on foreign policy. Nuclear weapons and arms control, however, have not been identified as topics for their third encounter. That’s too bad, because these subjects are central to the security of the United States — and in 2013 the president will face a significant opportunity for nuclear arms control.

There is little question that Obama sees value in reducing nuclear arms. Within months of taking office in January 2009, he delivered a speech in Prague laying out the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. To be sure, he attached qualifiers and said he might not live to see achievement of the goal. In the near term, he called for reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy, and both the nuclear posture review his administration completed in 2010 and the New START treaty it signed with Russia that same year reflected that aim.

Little of significance on arms control, however, has happened in the second half of Obama’s term. Although the president called for a new round of negotiations following New START to reduce nonstrategic and reserve nuclear warheads as well as deployed strategic nuclear forces, no such negotiations have followed. NATO adopted a deterrence and defense posture review that conditioned any change in the U.S. nuclear presence in Europe on Russian actions. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is no closer to ratification than in 2009. And completion of the administration’s nuclear posture review implementation study — which will set the president’s nuclear weapons policy and number of nuclear weapons needed to support it — has been delayed.

While the Republican right has attacked Obama for New START, his nuclear posture review, and his "naïve" vision of a nuclear-free world, arms control proponents are disappointed that more has not been accomplished. They had high hopes when the president took office, as did many administration officials. Obama’s team anticipated that they might rapidly conclude a new strategic arms treaty with Moscow, secure quick ratification, and then use the resulting momentum to gain Senate approval of the CTBT while moving to negotiate further nuclear cuts with the Russians.

Reality got in the way. The Russians at times slow-balled the negotiations, calculating that Obama might offer concessions in order to get New START done before he traveled to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009 (he did not). Gaining Senate consent to ratification proved more time-consuming and difficult than anyone expected — and produced no momentum for moving on the CTBT. After New START entered into force, the Russians showed little readiness for new negotiations, preferring to haggle over U.S. missile defense plans, with a wait-and-see posture as to who would be the American president in 2013.

As for NATO nuclear policy, U.S. officials see no need for nuclear weapons in Europe to deter Russia, but they have shown sensitivity to the views of Central European allies, who want no reduction in those weapons until Moscow makes some significant gesture. Many in the Senate remain dubious about the CTBT, and the administration decided (correctly) not to bring it to the floor unless it had the votes in hand. As for the nuclear posture review implementation study, the White House apparently concluded that finishing it and announcing the main elements would be politically risky in a charged presidential campaign. Supporters of arms control hope that, if reelected, Obama will turn back to the subject of nuclear weapons reductions with renewed energy and a willingness to spend some political capital.

In contrast to Obama, Romney clearly is skeptical about negotiated nuclear arms reductions. Among New START’s harshest critics, he penned a July 2010 op-ed calling the treaty "Obama’s worst foreign policy mistake." The article surprised even some Republicans with the vehemence of his opposition and the odd claims it made — he faulted New START for not banning bombers from carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles (even though neither the United States nor Russia has a bomber capable of lifting such missiles). Today, Romney’s foreign policy team is stacked with former officials who saw little reason for negotiated arms control during their time in the George W. Bush administration and who vigorously opposed New START.

That said, could geopolitical and budget realities lead a Romney administration to a more moderate approach? He has called for building a larger Navy and wants to avoid cutting Army manpower even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down. All that will cost money. Those priorities will compete with resources needed for modernizing the strategic nuclear deterrent. Arms control might lower the bill somewhat.

Romney might seek negotiations to reduce nonstrategic nuclear weapons, an area in which Russia holds a large numerical advantage. He criticized New START for not addressing those weapons, and Senate Republicans have called for efforts to limit them. In fact, NATO’s consensus on nuclear policy could unravel if Washington does not do something about them. Likewise, NATO allies expect that the U.S. government will seek a cooperative approach with Moscow on missile defense.

The short answer is that we do not know what Romney will do about nuclear weapons. His foreign policy white paper offers precious little detail, promising only a "review" of New START. But if confronted with hard choices about military requirements, budgets, and relations with Russia, would we see a more moderate Romney?

Whoever is president in 2013 will face a nuclear arms control opportunity that is far more significant than many appreciate. Done right, it could save funds that would be better used to strengthen U.S. conventional military forces or reduce the deficit. It could reinvigorate U.S.-Russia relations after a "reset" policy that, while beneficial to both sides in recent years, is now clearly stalled. And it could help Washington and Moscow promote nuclear nonproliferation around the world and formalize the consensus against nuclear weapons testing.

The opportunity should begin with the pursuit of another U.S.-Russian offensive arms accord. A New START II treaty could seek to limit each country to no more than 2,000-2,500 total nuclear warheads, with a sublimit of no more than 1,000 deployed strategic warheads. The reduction in strategic warheads by more than one-third from New START levels would be significant; more important would be the first-ever limit on nonstrategic warheads. Even with these lower limits, the United States and Russia would remain far superior to other countries in warhead totals. Moscow has been in a holding pattern the past 18 months, waiting to see who will be the U.S. president in 2013. Given that the Russians may have difficulties maintaining their strategic force at New START’s levels and their inability to match the U.S. capacity to add warheads to the deployed force should the treaty break down, the Kremlin may well have reasons to negotiate.

This offensive accord could be complemented with — and, in fact, be made easier to achieve by — confidence-building measures on missile defenses, based principally around the operation of a data fusion center in Brussels and a planning and operations center in Moscow, both jointly staffed by NATO and Russian military officers. The day-to-day operations of these centers, in conjunction with annual notifications regarding missile defenses and other transparency measures could provide the Russian military a full and regularly updated picture of U.S. and NATO missile defense capabilities, from which they could assess whether a serious threat to their strategic ballistic missiles existed. (U.S. missile defense plans over the next 10 years pose little real threat, but Russia will feel better if able to reach such an assessment on its own.) In effect, the sides would call a temporary truce over missile defense, recognizing that the issue could come back down the road. Missile defense cooperation has been stymied by Moscow’s demand for a legal agreement that U.S. missile defenses would not be directed against Russian strategic forces, something the Senate would never accept. The Kremlin is well aware of that opposition; indeed, the demand may simply reflect a desire, as with further nuclear cuts, to wait to see who will be president next January. But holding to this position in 2013 would run the risk of Russia appearing impotent as NATO proceeds with its missile defense plans.

With these efforts to further reduce nuclear arms and reach an understanding on missile defense as backdrop, Moscow and Washington could push to broaden the nuclear reductions process to third-party countries. Any reductions below the levels in a New START II treaty would require commitments from third-party countries, at least not to increase their warhead numbers. The U.N. Security Council’s permanent five members already have a dialogue underway on nuclear disarmament; while it’s now at the beginning stages, it might later evolve into a forum for a discussion of more meaningful multilateral commitments.

Washington could consider the prospects for CTBT ratification. The Senate may or may not be amenable, and a serious attempt at ratification would make sense only if the odds appear reasonably good. If attainable, U.S. ratification would raise the bar against testing by others and leave the United States — which has conducted more nuclear tests than all other nations combined — with a significant advantage in nuclear weapons knowledge. Securing Senate consent to CTBT ratification will be difficult, and any future administration should not press the matter unless it sees a path to gain the needed number of votes. But the demonstrated ability of the Stockpile Stewardship Program to maintain the reliability of the U.S. arsenal plus advances in technologies for detecting nuclear tests over the past decade have significantly strengthened the case for the CTBT.

With persistence, creativity and some luck, by the tail end of the next administration we might see some significant steps: New START II in force and further cuts to U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals; a cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense in operation; third-party nuclear powers beginning to engage in the arms control process by taking on "no increase" commitments; and real progress — ideally including U.S. and Chinese ratification — toward bringing the CTBT into force. This is ambitious, but not impossibly so.

It matters to U.S. security whether nuclear weapons are being limited and reduced, or whether other countries can build them without constraint or transparency. It matters to U.S. security whether missile defense can be a cooperative NATO-Russia issue, or whether it inflames relations and threatens to undercut cooperation on other questions. And it matters to U.S. security whether other countries can test nuclear weapons and erode the knowledge advantage that the United States has secured from more than 45 years of testing.

These questions affect the safety and security of every American. A reelected Obama administration would be more likely to pursue policies that might take the country in the direction outlined above. A Romney administration would likely be dubious of this vision; and it would be good to hear more detail from the governor and his foreign policy team. Let us hope that the two candidates address the matter frankly when they meet face-to-face again this coming Monday.

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