For nukes, another lost year

On February 9, 1988, President Reagan and his top aides met in the White House Situation Room to look at prospects for a strategic arms control treaty with the Soviet Union during Reagan’s last year in office. Although Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had come close to a deal on deep cuts at the ...

Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images
Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images
Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images

On February 9, 1988, President Reagan and his top aides met in the White House Situation Room to look at prospects for a strategic arms control treaty with the Soviet Union during Reagan's last year in office. Although Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had come close to a deal on deep cuts at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, they had yet to nail down an agreement.

Reagan had high hopes for a Moscow summit in the spring. He told his advisors to work hard toward a possible arms control treaty, if a satisfactory one could be hammered out. "We should all have our work shoes on," he insisted.

A few months later, on May 23, Reagan and his advisors met again in the Situation Room. At this point, the summit was a week away, but Reagan's advisors were at odds over missile defense. Exasperated, Secretary of State George Shultz declared at one point:

On February 9, 1988, President Reagan and his top aides met in the White House Situation Room to look at prospects for a strategic arms control treaty with the Soviet Union during Reagan’s last year in office. Although Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had come close to a deal on deep cuts at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, they had yet to nail down an agreement.

Reagan had high hopes for a Moscow summit in the spring. He told his advisors to work hard toward a possible arms control treaty, if a satisfactory one could be hammered out. "We should all have our work shoes on," he insisted.

A few months later, on May 23, Reagan and his advisors met again in the Situation Room. At this point, the summit was a week away, but Reagan’s advisors were at odds over missile defense. Exasperated, Secretary of State George Shultz declared at one point:

You know, this discussion highlights the fact that we can’t get straight internally what we want. How can we possibly negotiate with the Soviets when we can’t even articulate to each other what our position is in a meeting like this?

Once in Moscow, Reagan enjoyed an upbeat summit, but did not get a strategic arms treaty, and he left office without it. The following year, the new president, George H. W. Bush, was not in a hurry either. He started his term with a misguided "pause" in dealings with Moscow. Gorbachev was frustrated, and his national security advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, called 1989 "the lost year." (The treaty wasn’t signed until 1991, in the final months before the Soviet collapse.)

Why does this matter? Experience shows that "lost years" are all too common nuclear arms control negotiations. The best results come in those rare moments when national interests  align and leaders summon the willpower to make compromises. By that yardstick, it looks like 2012 will be another "lost year." Presidential elections in the United States and Russia mean that leaders in both countries–which hold the lion’s share of nuclear weapons in the world–will be preoccupied and cautious.

There’s a strange complacency about nuclear weapons. For all their destructive power, we tend to forget about them. The last atomic bomb to be used in combat was more than 60 years ago (although thousands were blown up in tests during the Cold War.) Many people ask: why worry now? Didn’t Presidents Obama and Dmitri Medvedev just sign a strategic arms treaty? Yes, they did, bringing the total operational strategic warheads down to 1,550 on each side. But thousands of other nuclear warheads in the United States and Russian Federation–at least 5,000, probably more, both tactical and strategic–remain outside the existing arms control treaties. It would make sense to corral them: get a precise fix on how many are out there, decide whether any must be retained for security, and put the rest on the conveyor belt to oblivion.

But negotiations require compromise, and that’s difficult during political campaigns. Vladimir Putin has been weakened by the recent protests in Moscow. Although he is still expected to win the March presidential election, it may not be the best time for making deals with the United States. Likewise, Obama and the Republicans will be in a constant struggle over the next 10 months, hardly a good moment for bargaining with Moscow. In the American campaign, neither Republicans nor Democrats are expected to make nuclear arms control an issue this year; it hasn’t cropped up once in the recent Republican debates.

So the next window for negotiations is 2013, at the earliest.

The lost year should be spent mapping out new approaches to eliminating the huge overhang of nuclear weapons from the Cold War, no matter who become the next leaders of Russia and the United States. Already, some policy discussions about the next phase are percolating in both capitals. The backlog of sticky problems between the two powers is growing ever larger, not to mention the nonproliferation challenges elsewhere.

Time to get the work shoes on.

To read the declassified minutes of the 1988 Reagan meetings, go to www.thereaganfiles.com and see the section on National Security Planning Group meetings. The two sessions were No. 176 and No. 190.

 

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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