The Case for Nuclear Unilateralism

New START may be flawed, but it also holds an opportunity for Obama to do something truly momentous.


Writing in Foreign Policy, Robert Joseph and Eric Edelman complain that the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia is flawed because it’s somehow akin to unilateral disarmament. Indeed, New START has its flaws but not for the reasons Joseph and Edelman offer. The main problem with the treaty has less to do with Russia than with the outrageous ransom demanded by the far-right Republicans — and granted by the administration — for passing the treaty. The domestic political bargains struck to gain support for ratification — huge increases in nuclear complex funding, warhead maintenance, and missile defense — were simply not worth the modest bilateral reductions in warheads. This ransom paid to gain passage of the treaty has been not only expensive but also, in the case of ineffective missile defense, destabilizing.

In view of the partisan bickering, domestic demands for pork, and ineffective military hardware involved with ratifying New START, the unilateral nuclear arms reductions so despised by Joseph and Edelman suddenly don’t seem like a bad option.

Obama entered office not favoring the ill-tested missile defense system but changed his mind, in part, because he understood he needed additional votes to ratify New START. This missile-defense "time bomb" — attached to New START at GOP insistence — is what is now going off, poisoning Washington’s relations with both Moscow and Beijing. The huge concessions — both monetary and diplomatic — made were simply not worth the modest goals of the treaty and, in fact, are now actively undermining it. Of course, it may have been worth tolerating deteriorating relations with Russia if the planned missile-defense system were actually effective against Iran or North Korea. It isn’t.

Joseph and Edelman argue that the United States is reducing nuclear weapons while other nations modernize their stockiples. They are right: Missile defense has provided a convenient pretext for hawkish Russian and Chinese analysts arguing for increased support for enlarging and upgrading their strategic weaponry. So Capitol Hill has succeeded in alienating Russia and China over a missile defense system that will provide an ineffective defense against North Korea and Iran.

In short, U.S. national security would be much better off without this huge funding increase for the weapons complex, without missile defense, and without New START. Instead, we have all three. Though bilateral arms reduction treaties can be sensible, they should not be ratified at any cost.

Contrary to what Joseph and Edelman argue, there is much to recommend unilateralism, especially in arcane and bureaucratic fields such as arms control, populated with armies of specialists, diplomats, and lawyers who can take months to resolve the minutiae in various subsections of the various subparagraphs. As Naval War College professor Joan Johnson-Freese summed up regarding these bureaucrats: "…their careers depend not on progress, but on the appearance of progress — which, of course, requires further study and discussion — they assiduously avoid providing decision-makers with viable options for action. (As John Adams complains about Congress in the famous musical 1776, they merely ‘piddle, twiddle, and resolve / not one damn thing do they solve.’)"

Indeed, unilateralism can be a superb tool to cut through this thicket of bilateral (or, worse, multilateral) bureaucracy. In fact, in a subtle sense, the mere act of hammering out a bilateral treaty with Russia casts each party in an adversarial role which may reinforce the historical perception of enmity. If we are now finally comfortable that the Cold War has ended, why not simply reduce our nuclear stockpile? No need to discuss anything with Russia.

Because New START will be in effect through early 2021, Washington could go ahead and unilaterally reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile while still benefiting from monitoring and transparency measures provided by the treaty. President Obama could do this without paying further ransom to the pork-hungry Congress. And for the next seven years, the United States would benefit from the provisions of New START that permit Washington to keep tabs on the Russian nuclear stockpile.

The chief of the Strategic Plans and Policy Division of the Air Force has indicated that U.S. nuclear-deterrent needs can safely be met by just 311 nuclear weapons. We ought to go to that number right away, or perhaps even substantially lower, and let Russia do whatever it wants. Problem solved. No meetings, airfares, coffee-breaks, plenary sessions, or multi-billion-dollar missile defenses required. All these savings could be applied to real military missions and projects.

And if Russia wants to continue to waste their precious rubles on a bloated and outdated stockpile, that’s their problem.

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