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Obama's "Unilateral Disarmament" is Neither

Why the only thing worse than a world with nuclear weapons is a world without them.

Steve Chapman
April 5, 2010

When Republicans and Democrats agree on a factual matter, it is for one of two reasons. Sometimes it's because a certain fact is true. And sometimes it's because both sides hope to gain from promoting an obvious fiction.

As it happens, they concur on one thing about the arms control agreement with Russia: It is a big step toward denuclearization. President Obama, who goes to Prague this week for a signing ceremony, says the accord advances the goal of "a world without nuclear weapons."

Republicans think that is the problem. Through the "New Start" agreement and other policies, claims former Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney Jr., Obama is "condemning the nation to unilateral disarmament."

Those are the claims. The reality is that the United States, after this treaty takes effect, will have 700 missiles and bombers carrying 1,550 warheads. That's enough to turn any country on Earth into smoking, radioactive rubble, and then turn the rubble into gravel.

Yet for the critics, the only thing better than too much is even more. They somehow imagine that an enemy willing to risk being visited with 1,550 nuclear blasts will back down at the prospect of 1,560.

The treaty is supposed to slash arsenals by 30 percent. In reality, it will fall well short of that because of strange counting rules. A B-52 is assumed to carry only one bomb, for example, even though it is equipped (and will be allowed) to carry 20.

Pavel Podvig, a physicist at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, says almost all of the advertised cuts "will be accomplished by changing the way warheads are counted." It's like saying I'm going to lose 20 pounds, with each actual pound counting as 10.

In practice, reports the Federation of American Scientists, the United States will have to get rid of just 100 warheads, while the Russians will scrap 190. It's not disarmament, and it's not unilateral.

The main value of the treaty is that it obligates both governments to inform the other of how many weapons it has and where they are located, while imposing verification requirements to keep them honest.

It also opens the possibility of deeper cuts. Those make sense because neither side needs such a huge stockpile or the expense that comes with it—and because the more weapons, the greater the risk of a disastrous accident.

The deal represents a modest improvement over the status quo. So why the pretense that it's a big step toward the abandonment of nuclear weapons?

Both sides have their reasons. Republicans want voters to see Obama as an appeaser bent on weakening our security. Obama wants to induce other countries to forgo nukes by showing that the U.S. and Russia will eventually do the same.

Neither depiction is convincing. Both Moscow and Washington will retain unimaginable destructive capacities. We regard nukes as essential to our security, and we don't intend to give them up anytime soon, if ever.

Good thing, too. Obama is not the first president to envision the abolition of nuclear weapons—Ronald Reagan tried to negotiate toward that end with the Soviet Union. But the only thing worse than a world with nuclear weapons is a world without them.

Why? Because they create a huge incentive for major powers not to attack each other. The danger that a conventional war might escalate to doomsday is so horrifying that no one wants to take the chance. It is impossible to win a nuclear war. So the paramount goal of every nuclear state is to avoid one.

History has never seen two adversaries with greater military resources than the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet for nearly half a century, the only war they fought with each other was the Cold War—which got the name because it never got hot.

In the 65 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no country has used the Bomb. Nor is any of them (or any future nuclear state) likely to, because it would invite utter annihilation. The most horrendous weapon ever created turns out to be a powerful force for peace.

It is not about to be phased out by either the U.S. or Russia. The notable fact about this accord is not that it does so much to reduce nuclear arsenals, but that it does so little. Even if no one wants to admit it.

This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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