A grand bargain

Now that the New Start treaty has been ratified by the Senate, is nuclear arms control exhausted? If it was so difficult for President Obama to win Senate approval of a modest reduction in strategic weapons, should we just forget about anything more ambitious? Hardly. Look beyond the minute-by-minute political handicapping that dominates Washington, and ...

Now that the New Start treaty has been ratified by the Senate, is nuclear arms control exhausted? If it was so difficult for President Obama to win Senate approval of a modest reduction in strategic weapons, should we just forget about anything more ambitious?

Hardly. Look beyond the minute-by-minute political handicapping that dominates Washington, and the next steps, over a period of a few years, are evident.

The Russians have several thousand tactical or short-range nuclear weapons. The United States has only about 500, of which fewer than 200 are based in Europe. Meanwhile, the United States has several thousand inactive strategic nuclear weapons, in a "reserve" or hedge, which was created at the end of the Cold War.

Now that the New Start treaty has been ratified by the Senate, is nuclear arms control exhausted? If it was so difficult for President Obama to win Senate approval of a modest reduction in strategic weapons, should we just forget about anything more ambitious?

Hardly. Look beyond the minute-by-minute political handicapping that dominates Washington, and the next steps, over a period of a few years, are evident.

The Russians have several thousand tactical or short-range nuclear weapons. The United States has only about 500, of which fewer than 200 are based in Europe. Meanwhile, the United States has several thousand inactive strategic nuclear weapons, in a "reserve" or hedge, which was created at the end of the Cold War.

Neither the Russian tactical nuclear weapons nor the U.S. inactive strategic warheads are covered in the New Start treaty. Both suffer from lack of transparency.

So, the next big step is a Grand Bargain, an idea that has been floated in the last year or two by some smart thinkers on nuclear policy. First, the United States and Russia combine all these nuclear weapons into one category, a single bucket, and stop separating them into strategic and tactical. Each is a nuclear bomb, and while some are bigger than others, experts have long suspected that the use of a lower-yield tactical nuke could easily trigger retaliation with something bigger and more devastating. So let’s count them all as warheads to be negotiated.

Next, the United States and Russia hammer out a deal to cut the number in half, or go even deeper. The key is that each side could decide on its own how to get there. We would probably reach the goal by giving up some of those strategic nukes which are stored in our reserves; the Russians could get there by giving up the same amount of their tactical warheads.

What could make this work is that it would involve weapons that are largely "offline," and not part of the immediate, day-to-day deterrent. (The Russian tactical weapons are deployed to some extent, but the bulk of them are probably in storage.) Also, each side would actually be trading a cut for a cut. Naturally, there are some uncertainties. Would Russia would be willing to forego a chunk of its tactical nukes, which seem to have more value to them today in a period when their conventional forces are relatively weaker? Would the United States finally relinquish a big part of the strategic reserve?

The answers may not become apparent for a while, but it would be a mistake to abandon nuclear arms control now. The process is not exhausted.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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