Sleepwalking into the future

Only two countries on Earth possess thousands of nuclear warheads: the United States and Russia. Together, they account for 95 percent of the existing 20,500 weapons; no other nation has more than a few hundred. Despite the new U.S.-Russia strategic arms limitation treaty, there is plenty of room for deeper reductions in these two arsenals, ...

Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Only two countries on Earth possess thousands of nuclear warheads: the United States and Russia. Together, they account for 95 percent of the existing 20,500 weapons; no other nation has more than a few hundred. Despite the new U.S.-Russia strategic arms limitation treaty, there is plenty of room for deeper reductions in these two arsenals, including tactical nuclear weapons, which have never been covered by a treaty, and strategic nuclear weapons held in reserve.

This December will mark the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse and end of the Cold War, a largely peaceful finale to an enormous, costly competition between two blocs and two colossal military machines. Today’s threats are different: terrorism, cyber attacks, pandemics, proliferation and conventional wars. As Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Defense: “We are no longer in the Cold War. This is more like the blizzard war, a blizzard of challenges that draw speed and intensity from terrorism, from rapidly developing technologies and the rising number of powers on the world stage.”

Yet the United States and Russia, no longer adversaries, seem to be sleepwalking toward the future. Perhaps the drift is the result of the approaching election season in both countries. Unfortunately, politics makes it harder to embrace new thinking. But honestly, haven’t we learned anything in two decades?

Only two countries on Earth possess thousands of nuclear warheads: the United States and Russia. Together, they account for 95 percent of the existing 20,500 weapons; no other nation has more than a few hundred. Despite the new U.S.-Russia strategic arms limitation treaty, there is plenty of room for deeper reductions in these two arsenals, including tactical nuclear weapons, which have never been covered by a treaty, and strategic nuclear weapons held in reserve.

This December will mark the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse and end of the Cold War, a largely peaceful finale to an enormous, costly competition between two blocs and two colossal military machines. Today’s threats are different: terrorism, cyber attacks, pandemics, proliferation and conventional wars. As Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Defense: “We are no longer in the Cold War. This is more like the blizzard war, a blizzard of challenges that draw speed and intensity from terrorism, from rapidly developing technologies and the rising number of powers on the world stage.”

Yet the United States and Russia, no longer adversaries, seem to be sleepwalking toward the future. Perhaps the drift is the result of the approaching election season in both countries. Unfortunately, politics makes it harder to embrace new thinking. But honestly, haven’t we learned anything in two decades?

Instead of moving to the next stage in reducing nuclear arsenals, the two countries are debating stale arguments of yesteryear.

Take missile defense. A generation ago, President Reagan proposed research into a global shield to defend against ballistic missiles. At the Reykjavik summit in 1986, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came close to a deal that would have dramatically slashed offensive strategic nuclear arms. But it fell apart because Reagan insisted on his dream of a global missile defense shield. Even today, many Americans remember this dramatic moment as a triumph by Reagan. The globe-straddling shield was never built, although one legacy of that era is that missile defense still enjoys enormous political support in Congress. Many of the vexing technical hurdles to building an effective sheild remain unresolved.

Today, a fresh divide over missile defense separates East and West. It should not be as momentous as the last one. NATO and Russia are discussing a U.S. plan to build a limited European ballistic missile defense system, known as the Phased Adaptive Approach, largely aimed at defending against medium-range missiles from Iran. The scope would be more modest than Reagan’s 1983 idea. Nonetheless, Russian officials have expressed fear that improvements in the NATO system by the end of this decade could threaten Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. Russia has asked NATO for legal guarantees that the system would not be used to neutralize its strategic missiles. In response, NATO has been trying to hammer out a method of cooperation—two hands on the joystick?—to meet the Russian concerns, so far without success.

The Russians have been warning that should this effort stall, it may not be possible to negotiate deeper cuts in existing nuclear arsenals. Also, partly in response to uncertainty over missile defense, Russia has taken the first steps to design a new liquid-fueled, multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile. Such a project would take years, huge investments, and might never materialize, but it has appeared on the drawing boards.

These may be just negotiating feints. But it will be a real shame if an impasse over missile defense prevents progress on negotiations for deeper cuts in existing nuclear arsenals, or if it begets a new weapons system.

Last week, one of Russia’s leading defense industry chiefs, Yuri Solomonov, who heads the Moscow Heat Technology Institute, which built the Topol-M and Bulava missiles, presented some hard truths in an interview published by the newspaper Kommersant. He called plans to build a new heavy liquid-fueled missile “outright stupidity.” On missile defense, he said there has been talk about a shield for half a century; nothing has come of it, and nothing will come of it. He said ballistic missile defense would always be easier to defeat with countermeasures, which Russia has developed.

So, let’s hope NATO and Russia can find a way to agree on limited missile defense, if only to pave the way for genuine cooperation on what’s really important: reducing the existing outsized nuclear arsenals. Should arms control negotiations stall, and Russia builds the new heavy missile, it will stimulate a response in the United States, where the military services are already preparing modernization plans for the next generation of subs, missiles and aircraft to carry nuclear weapons. A new Russian heavy missile would be just the threat they need to justify massive new spending.

A revived nuclear arms race is the last thing the world needs to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the Cold War.

 

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

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.