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Borde-nough: The opportunities of nuclear arms control

Published: April 16, 2010
Section: Opinions

After the health care sprint, President Barack Obama needed a cakewalk.  He chose the next issue on his agenda well.  On April 6, the United States Department of Defense released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which revised American nuclear policy.  Obama signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague on April 7.  He then returned home to host a summit meeting on nuclear terrorism and proliferation attended by more than 40 heads of state.

Nuclear arms control affords American presidents wonderful political opportunities.  The chips on the table in the arms control game, the weapons themselves, sometimes appear expendable.  Most were bought (although, to judge by the size of our national debt, probably not paid for) long ago. Hundreds can be disarmed without creating immediate security risks.

America can readily take the lead in nuclear arms control.  Its arsenal, a Cold War legacy, is a brimming political kitty.

Obama dug into that kitty and bought concessions from Russia.  His administration adopted a more restrained American nuclear posture.  He held a fine looking summit with other nuclear powers.  The summit did little, but it allowed him to publicly talk tough about terrorism.

Obama surely bolstered his image, but the substance of his policies is open to question.  Should America pursue what Obama has called “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons?”

If so, America will not realize that goal by joining Russia at the wishing well and tossing in nuclear weapons.  America’s arsenal is like a no-interest bank account on which we may draw to buy concessions.  Neither America nor Russia speaks for the weapons most likely to be used.  Those weapons belong to others.  America’s arsenal should be used to purchase concessions from them.

India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea all face strategic threats that are not alleviated by either the START treaty or the NPR.  Those states’ leaders probably keep their fingers closer to the nuclear trigger than their American or Russian counterparts.  Reducing the threat of nuclear war means bringing them to the bargaining table.

Moreover, the NPR acknowledges that China is undertaking a “qualitative and quantitative modernization of its nuclear arsenal,” and that “the lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear programs…raises questions about China’s future strategic intentions.” But Obama and Medvedev weren’t joined in Prague by China’s dictators.  America’s leaders settled for an easy bilateral pact with Russia—which has made no secret of its desire to reduce its arsenal—and made no effort to include China in a multilateral arrangement.  Someday we may regret that.

On the other hand, a world without nuclear weapons might not mean “peace and security.” Some academics and politicians think that we are living through a “democratic peace.” But there is reason to wonder whether peace among the major powers is founded not on democracy but on the folly of nuclear war.

Eliminating nuclear weapons could make major wars conceivable again.  If our democracy could elect the likes of George W. Bush, there is nothing inherently peaceable about democracy.

Obama’s no-nukes rhetoric probably came from his Kennedy-esque speechwriters rather than his Bush-esque military advisers.  START may have wasted some nuclear bargaining chips.  The Washington summit may have fizzled.  For the hawkish, the NPR’s pledge that “the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are … in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations” may seem too meek.

But what Obama has done is not tantamount to, as Sarah Palin put it, “getting out there on a playground, a bunch of kids, getting ready to fight, and one of the kids saying, ‘Go ahead, punch me in the face and I’m not going to retaliate.’” He might have done better, but Palin cannot seriously maintain that Obama has immediately risked American security.

Some supporters of the woman who appears to have a leg (or two) up on other Republican presidential aspirants find her lovely even when she’s chewing on her foot.  But Palin’s wild sound bites may eventually cause her appeal as a candidate to fade.

The emergence of a credible Republican candidate for 2012 would keep Obama and Congressional Democrats honest.  Rather than prosecuting two wars, prostituting themselves to insurance companies with their health care legislation, and pushing offshore oil drilling and free trade arrangements with Republican zeal, Obama and his allies might have to tack a little closer to their base.

If not, Obama will get a free pass in 2012 and can keep playing the Republican.  Thankfully, something about Palin suggests that her appeal to voters won’t last forever.  She may have a couple of legs up on the competition in 2012, but neither leg is getting any younger.