Nuclear arms control will become harder

The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms, by Steven Pifer and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Brookings Institution Press, RRP$24.95

Can the US and Russia agree to make fresh cuts in their bloated nuclear arsenals? As President Barack Obama prepares for a second term in the White House, the question is much on the minds of arms control experts around the world.

In 2010, Mr Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, the then Russian president, agreed a significant round of matching cuts in their nuclear stockpiles, giving a firm underpinning to the “reset” in the US-Russia relationship.

Many hope Washington and Moscow can now go further, taking both sides below their latest treaty commitment to have no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each.

Cutting nuclear stockpiles is a goal to which Mr Obama was committed long before he became US president. In a speech in Prague in 2009, he declared “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”.

Mr Obama has endorsed the work of Global Zero, the international movement that believes the world should work towards the abolition of nuclear weapons. As many US officials have said, this is an issue that he really “gets”.

That said, negotiating new cuts in US and Russian stockpiles is going to be much harder in 2013 than was the case in 2009. For one thing, the president has a huge array of issues on his table – America’s fiscal cliff, the rebalancing of US security policy towards Asia and the upheaval generated by the Arab spring in the Middle East.

Why focus on arms control, where he has already established something of a legacy? Besides, with President Vladimir Putin back in full command in the Kremlin, Russia is in a far more belligerent mood towards the US than was the case four years ago – and will be far harder to negotiate with. As one wag puts it: “In his first term, Obama reset the US-Russia relationship with Medvedev. Now it’s Medvedev who has been reset.”

Still, this does not stop Steven Pifer and Michael O’Hanlon, two leading national security experts at the Brookings Institution, from arguing that another US-Russia arms control treaty should be firmly on the president’s second-term agenda.

In The Opportunity, they review the history of east-west nuclear arms reductions going back to the 1950s. But more significantly, their book is a practical and hard-headed analysis of how another Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty might be achieved – recognising that success must overcome sceptical Republicans in Congress as well as hardliners in the Kremlin.

The authors’ central argument – one directed at the hawks back home – is that it is in America’s national interest to get a new US-Russia treaty signed. They argue that in spite of all the cuts achieved in recent decades, Russia still has the opportunity to destroy the US many times over.

Modernising US nuclear weapons is an immense financial burden at a time when the rest of the Pentagon budget is under pressure. Moreover, it is only by making more cuts in US and Russian stockpiles (both still possess about 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons) that other nuclear powers can be persuaded to make their own cuts.

The authors also tackle Russia’s concerns. Moscow’s biggest worry is about US and Nato plans to develop a ballistic missile defence system across Europe. The US and its allies want this system because they seek protection against future long-range missiles from Iran and North Korea.

Yet the Kremlin believes Nato’s interceptors will ultimately undermine Russia’s own offensive capability, and are therefore stalling any discussions about cuts in their existing arsenals. The authors acknowledge that the Russians have a “legitimate concern” about Nato’s missile defence plans. But they spell out concessions the US could take, such as relocating key parts of the west’s missile defence plan, to try to get Moscow off the fence.

For all the authors’ efforts to sketch out a new Start deal, the question that lingers is whether the Kremlin really wants one. “Ultimately, the Russian position will turn on [Mr] Putin’s decision and will be shaped in part by his view of how the issue plays in Russian domestic politics,” the authors concede.

It is in Russia’s interests to agree a new deal (not least because it would reduce the cost of maintaining its own nuclear arsenal). But by portraying the US as an adversary, Mr Putin knows he can distract attention from Russia’s domestic problems.

Where we are left in no doubt, however, is that this is a pressing agenda. The growth in the number of nuclear weapons in some states – most notably Pakistan – alarms most people who follow these issues. In a sane world, the “opportunity” would now be taken.

The writer is the FT’s defence and diplomatic editor

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