Outside View: Overcoming nuclear legacy

By BENNETT RAMBERG, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  April 25, 2008 at 4:34 PM
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LOS ANGELES, April 25 (UPI) -- Perhaps it says something about the "positive" state of Russian-American relations that the recent Bush-Putin Sochi summit could take place at all against the backdrop of Moscow's strenuous opposition to NATO expansion and Washington's plans to build a ballistic defense in neighboring countries. So it ought to come as no surprise that, despite the happy face the two leaders put on at the end of their meeting, the best their Strategic Framework Declaration could come up with was the statement of dedication to move from a relationship of "strategic competition to strategic partnership."

That Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush failed to establish the partnership after eight years in office is discouraging enough. That the failure also included, in the Declaration's words, the inability to move "beyond past strategic principles, which focused on the prospect of mutual annihilation," can be acceptable to no one.

If we are to end this deadly nuclear embrace, we must first understand the immediate and underlying intellectual roadblocks.

Arguably, Bush generated kindling for the current dispute over ballistic missile defense in Europe when he unilaterally bolted from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty six years ago. Then, Russia could only grin and bear it. Today, an economically resurgent Kremlin, still smarting, refuses to play second fiddle. To demonstrate determination to push back, in December 2007 it suspended implementation of the 1991 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty while reserving the threat to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

But in the nuclear scheme of things, Europe is a backwater. The greater danger remains the atomic superpowers' lingering large strategic arsenals.

The Bush-Putin consensus to continue development of a legally binding "post-START arrangement" suggests promotion of firmer codification and enforcement of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty. As it stands now, the United States and Russia will reduce their respective 6,000 and 4,000 strategic warheads to a flexible figure of 1,700-2,200 bombs by 2012. (The treaty does not place limits on weapons in storage.) But the citizens of America and Russia should not take solace. Do we really wish to live as nuclear hostages for decades to come? Or can we transcend the Cold War arms control legacy that left us in the vice of mutual assured destruction?

The push for arms control in the late 1950s grew out of a presumption that "disarmament" in an era when two ideological titans battled over the hearts and minds of the global population made little sense when nuclear weapons correlated with political power. Serious interest in arms limitation emerged only after the superpowers found themselves "eyeball to eyeball" in the nearly disastrous Cuban missile crisis. The 1963 limited test ban agreement opened the door.

The remaining Cold War years brought an alphabet soup of nuclear limitation agreements: SALT, START, INF, CFE, NPT, TTBT, PNET and ABM to name the most prominent. But in practice, neither superpower banked its survival on arms control. Rather, to avoid being Pearl Harbored, they constructed massive numbers of hardened and dispersed nuclear weapons. Arms control simply served to moderate the competition. The strategy worked: The Cold War ended without a nuclear shot being fired.

The experience left Russian and American defense planners with confidence they could continue a "SORT" of business as usual by retaining reduced but still very large arsenals. However, growing concern about nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East and North Korea, coupled with the end of the ideological contest between Moscow and Washington, stirred new interest in nuclear abolition.

In the past two years four foreign and defense policy heavyweights -- Democrats and Republicans -- weighed in. In their Wall Street Journal commentaries, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry pushed for a break with arms control and promoted nuclear disarmament. Concerned not to be associated with wily eyed idealists, they cloaked their argument in the words of an indisputable Cold War warrior, Ronald Reagan, who advocated the "elimination of all nuclear weapons." Reagan argued that the bomb is "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on Earth and civilization."

While it is too late for Bush or Putin to promote a dramatic nuclear reduction agenda were they inclined -- which they are not -- it is not too early for the presidential candidates and the new Russian leader, Dmitry Medvedev, to seriously contemplate such an approach. Congress provided impetus in the United States. In its December 2007 rejection of Bush's effort to generate new nuclear weapons -- the reliable replacement warhead -- Congress called upon the current and next administration to justify the atomic arsenal. Come Jan. 20, 2009, the time will have arrived.


(Bennett Ramberg, Ph.D. (Johns Hopkins), JD (UCLA) served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. The author of three books and editor of three others on international security, Ramberg has written for such prestigious journals as Foreign Affairs and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His op-eds have appeared in most major newspaper in the United States and many abroad.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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