New START doesn't go far enough
The greatest failures of the strategic arms treaty now moving toward a vote in the Senate are of imagination and nerve. This bilateral pact to pare the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals deals with Cold War threats that have largely passed. It fails to address directly the urgent contemporary menaces centered in rogue proliferators such as Iran and North Korea.
Yet its provisions for improving verification through enhanced snap inspections and greater data exchanges outweigh its shortcomings. The Senate should therefore move quickly to ratify the treaty - as the last of its kind. Creating a memorial to superpower cooperation will let the Obama administration pivot to launching the multilateral arms control negotiations that have become crucial for the president's vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
The 1,550 long-range nuclear warheads that Washington and Moscow allow each other to keep under New START are far more than either needs to deter enemy states from launching an atomic attack. That can be done with 500, or fewer, warheads capable of being delivered to targets anywhere on Earth. So why did we stop far short of what in nuke-speak is called minimal deterrence?
U.S. officials cite Russian unwillingness to go lower now, as well as their own concerns that quick, sharp reductions would impair U.S. forces should they have to survive a nuclear attack and then respond with devastating power. But more intriguing are suggestions that moves by Washington and Moscow to minimal deterrence might encourage other nuclear powers to race toward nuclear parity or even superiority.
In a conversation here devoted primarily to his effective advocacy of New START ratification, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, diplomatically indicated that U.S. planners worry most that China would be tempted to sprint toward the top.
"There are thoughts along those lines," Mullen allowed. "But it would be a terrible outcome if we ended up with a new nuclear arms race. That is what must be prevented." He argued that ratifying the carefully crafted U.S.-Russia treaty is an essential step on that path.
China has given no signs in recent years of significantly expanding its relatively small nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to contain about 300 warheads. But as India and Pakistan continue to increase their atomic potential and Iran's nuclear program pushes Arab states toward bombs of their own, chances of regional nuclear conflict rise as those of global Armageddon lessen.
Mullen had just finished addressing a two-day brainstorming session at Stanford on redefining deterrence when we spoke a few weeks ago. Like other senior administration officials, he put New START in the context of the "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations. But I wish Washington and Moscow had pushed history's fast-forward button instead.
They could have coupled deeper and faster cuts in their arsenals with the truly urgent problem of the new nuclear era we have entered. That could mean devising a framework to prevent the chain reaction that will occur if other established nuclear powers sprint to expand their programs, Iran joins the club and Saudi Arabia bangs on the door right behind Tehran.
This is the nightmare that drives the continuing efforts of George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and Bill Perry - the four former statesmen who led discussions at the Stanford conference - to identify concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. To have Mullen, the president's top military adviser, eagerly join that conversation made it more relevant and realistic.
It may be idealistic to think, as I do, that we now need and can reach a negotiating framework that would include not only Russia and the United States but also China, France, Britain, India and Pakistan. These nations should urgently commit to negotiating the capping, reducing and eventual abolition of their nuclear arsenals - and explicitly urge North Korea, Iran and Israel to freeze further development of nuclear weapons while these negotiations proceed.
Only an effort this large can contain the immediate dangers the world faces from the possession of nuclear weapons by wayward states (such as North Korea, Iran and Pakistan in my book) or terrorist groups.
I concede that this project is in the difficult-to-impossible range. But launching the effort will focus global attention on the problem states that would disrupt the nuclear status quo that the New START accord codifies. And failure of that course would free the United States to pursue future cuts and reach minimal deterrence through its own actions, not through negotiations with Moscow.
The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.