Sunday, March 28, 2010


On Friday President Obama, flanked by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Gates, and Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, announced that the U.S. and Russia had agreed to "... the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades..." He said that the agreement was a follow-up to his Prague declaration "... to pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons ...", a "reset" of relations with Russia, and that the by the agreement "... the United States and Russia -- the two largest nuclear powers in the world -- also send a clear signal that we intend to lead. By upholding our own commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we strengthen our global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons, and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities."

The White House also issued a release, Key Facts about the New START Treaty that provided a number of details on the agreement, including the following numbers:

The agreement was hailed by many as demonstrating U.S. leadership; as being a significant step towards the goals of a nuclear-free world that President Obama had articulated in his Prague speech; as a foreign policy "win", a "critical victory", etc. Some observations from this blogger:
  • The presentation was orchestrated for maximum "internal" effect... After the President spoke SecDef Gates and Chairman Mullen spoke out strongly in favor, in effect adding the military's imprimatur to preemptively inoculate the President and the agreement from possible attacks from the right. Great pains were taken to ensure that it was abundantly clear that nothing in the agreement would place any constraints on the U.S. development/deployment of missile defense systems (more about this later), again for the same reason...
  • As others have pointed out (e.g. here and here) the cuts are somewhat more modest than the numbers touted (a 30% reduction in deployed strategic warheads, an over 50% reduction in strategic nuclear delivery vehicles), due to current force levels and the way things are counted...
  • The new agreement continues the practice of only limiting "deployed" warheads and also delivery vehicles (missiles, nuclear bombers), but says nothing about other elements of the nuclear stockpile (e.g. warheads in reserve, those awaiting dismantlement, non-strategic nukes, etc.) In fact the agreement appears to say nothing about the need to actually eliminate any warheads.
  • While the point above may be well understood by 'those in the know', given the (predictably) shoddy coverage provided by the mainstream media the vast majority of U.S. citizens could be forgiven for thinking that the two countries are making big reductions in their nuclear arsenals and/or that the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles will be shrinking to 1,550 warheads... as opposed to possibly staying at their current , significantly higher levels (see chart below)
Chart credit: Federation of American Scientists
  • It appears that the deadline for achieving the limits set forth in the agreement is set seven years from the entry in force of the agreement (and presumably the clock starts counting after the agreement is ratified by both countries), so might not necessarily be achieved by (even a two-term) President Obama! The agreement also expires ten years after its entry in force, with the possibility of a five-year extension.
So, in sum, a very modest step forward. Positive, yes. Needed, yes. However, great leadership on the world stage, a significant step towards the achievement of President Obama's "vision" of a nuclear-free world, no. Given the small decreases and the time lines involved, unless next agreements come much earlier, President Obama will have made sure that zero will be reached "... perhaps not in my lifetime..."

Two final thoughts: First, the crowing that the agreement means that the Russians "caved" and that there will be no limitations on the U.S. proceeding with missile defense is possibly a triumph of short-term, one-upmanship thinking. While probably necessitated (unfortunately) by the internal U.S. political dynamic at this time, it will prove to be an increasingly significant barrier as/if further reductions are to be achieved. As nuclear reductions move forward in the future, (absent a significantly greater "reset" in Russian thinking and attitudes) at some point they will be reluctant to cut further... since future much lower numbers of delivery vehicles on both sides with a credible U.S. missile defense could, in theory, add up to a first-strike capability.

Second, the very modest nature of these reductions undermines the "we're holding up our end of the NPT bargain (the future elimination of nuclear weapons), the rest of the non-nuclear world needs to hold up its end of the bargain (i.e. non-proliferation)" argument... While the mainstream media and mass public may not pay attention to the details, the 'possible proliferators' do, and they will probably not be overly impressed by "the new START."

Ed note: All this not a huge surprise to this blogger, who found the Prague speech underwhelming, see 'More nuclear disarmament'

Additional Ed note: This blogger remains unconvinced that the U.S. and Russia moving to slowly reduce their nuclear arsenals is the best strategy to jump start the road to zero. He would, and has long argued, that the best and most credible first step would be the elimination of the U.K. and French nuclear weapons (if necessary via the U.S. "leaning" as heavily as needed on these two countries to make this happen!) e.g. see here, here, here, here, and here. As it is, the U.K. welcomed the developments, promised to "... make further reductions wherever possible ..." while (surprise!) insisting that it only keeps the "...absolute minimum capability required to provide effective deterrence ..."

Some Preliminary Thoughts on the New START agreement
The Start of a New Obama Narrative
New U.S.-Russian Arms Control Deal Set for Signing
Questions Abound as "New START" Agreement is Completed
US-Russia nuclear pact to be Obama victory
Getting A New START On The Road To Nuclear Arms Reductions
U.S., Russia agree to nuclear arms control treaty

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