Analysis & Opinions - Politico

U.S., Russia Must Lead on Arms Control

| October 13, 2009

The United States faces the urgent challenge of using the year ahead to limit the risks of nuclear proliferation and to lower the level of nuclear weapons in the world. Achieving these goals is crucial to a peaceful century. President Barack Obama has undertaken a variety of initiatives to reduce American and Russian nuclear arsenals, dissuade states that have forgone nuclear weapons from acquiring them, stop the production of fissile material for military purposes, tighten measures to keep nuclear weapons from ever being used, prevent dangerous technology from falling into the hands of terrorists and promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

In late September, leaders at the United Nations and the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh committed themselves to all these goals. Yet in the midst of those meetings, President Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy revealed that Iran had been secretly building a second enrichment facility with the potential to produce weapons-grade uranium. That ominous development dramatized the urgent need for renewed political will in support of arms control, nonproliferation and disarmament.

The U.S. and Russia must lead the world in reducing the risks associated with nuclear weapons. Since they possess 96 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, they can, together, significantly lower the global stockpile while at the same time setting an example for other states and catalyzing progress on multilateral agreements.

The U.S. and Russia are negotiating in Geneva to produce a strategic arms reduction treaty to replace START I, which expires in December. If those talks are successful, the U.S. Senate will consider the new treaty for ratification next year.

Meanwhile, the administration is weighing when to resubmit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was rejected by the Senate on Oct. 13, 1999 — 10 years ago today.

In the U.S., international agreements regulating the size and composition of national defenses have often been controversial, and a new strategic arms treaty and CTBT will be no exception. Arms control and nonproliferation agreements earn the support of the citizenry and Congress only when a president makes a convincing case that such treaties are in the national interest. The new strategic arms treaty, which is still a work in progress, and CTBT have already aroused expressions of skepticism or outright opposition from key legislators and opinion makers. Ratifying both will be to the international advantage of the United States.

The CTBT is especially important to the goal of reducing nuclear weapons. Its ratification by the U.S. and eight other holdout countries will considerably strengthen the global nonproliferation regime in numerous ways. By actively seeking ratification, the U.S. will be more able to persuade Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty member states to erect stronger barriers against the acquisition of nuclear weapons. When ratified, the CTBT will expedite agreement on more rigorous export controls, measures to protect against the theft of dangerous materials and know-how and measures to discourage the spread of enrichment and reprocessing facilities. Implementation of the CTBT's international monitoring system will add significantly to U.S. national capabilities to detect covert nuclear testing worldwide. It will also impede the ability of countries with nuclear weapons to develop and deploy more advanced nuclear systems, including taking steps to miniaturize and otherwise make more usable their offensive nuclear capabilities.

The ratification of a new strategic arms treaty and CTBT will be difficult. The administration will need to convince the Senate that the two agreements serve an integrated strategy for enhancing American and world security. With respect to the CTBT, ratification will require addressing concerns — including ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile — that led several still-serving senators to vote against the treaty a decade ago.

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee cited Obama's dedication to arms control and nonproliferation when announcing last Friday his selection as this year's laureate. If he creates a positive, mutually reinforcing dynamic in the way he presents and sequences the two treaties, it will give momentum and coherence to follow-on negotiations and the agreements that they produce.

Obama's success in managing the domestic politics of defense and diplomacy will be an important factor in his effectiveness as a world leader during the years ahead. He will host a global nuclear security summit in Washington in April, with the aim of strengthening international resolve to combat nuclear smuggling and terrorism. In May, the U.S. will be a key participant in a conference in New York at which the 189 member states of the NPT will review its status and prospects. When the NPT entered into force in 1970, it was intended to limit the number of nuclear weapons states to five (the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China). Since then, three states that never signed the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons (India, Israel and Pakistan). In addition, North Korea violated its treaty obligations and exploded two crude devices. Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program underscores the danger of the global nonproliferation regime's unraveling, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Averting that danger will require multiple, coordinated and sustained efforts for many years to come, but ratification of a new U.S.-Russia arms reduction treaty in 2010 and engagement in the Senate on CTBT will help. For example, a new arms reduction agreement will give substance to the "reset" in the U.S.-Russian relationship, and that, in turn, could translate into a more constructive Russian position on Iran in the United Nations Security Council and elsewhere. Progress in the Senate on CTBT will advance U.S. credibility for efforts to put controls on nuclear weapons.

In our view, the following principles and propositions would be helpful in guiding administration policy, Senate consideration and public debate toward ratification of the two treaties:

Because of the limited time for completing a new strategic arms treaty, it should remain simple and contain counting rules and verification provisions suitably updated but modeled on START I. It should be seen as a bridge to a more ambitious treaty in the future.

In order to ensure that the START process does not stop with the successor treaty, the U.S. should seek from Russia a commitment to follow-on negotiations that will advance the near-term goals of significant reductions in strategic forces, improved "crisis stability" (less likelihood that nuclear weapons would be used in a political or military confrontation) and greater transparency (exchange of and access to information about capabilities on both sides).

The follow-on to the new strategic arms treaty should induce decreased levels of and reliance on nuclear weaponry of all ranges, including tactical nuclear weapons in which Russia has a considerable advantage.

In the long term, the process should open discussions with China, France and Britain to better understand the conditions for transparency and verification, since that will help bring them into a multilateral arms control regime.

The successor treaty should — both in what it mandates and in what it permits — reinforce the U.S.'s defense commitments to its allies, including extended deterrence.

While the treaty will be bilateral, the U.S. and Russia should encourage negotiations with, between and among other declared and demonstrated nuclear powers (China, Britain, France, India and Pakistan) and reiterate their joint support for international efforts to induce North Korea to rejoin the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapons state and Iran to abide by its obligations as a non-nuclear member state of the NPT.

While the successor treaty will deal only with strategic offensive weapons, the U.S. and Russia should set in motion future discussions to negotiate regulation of missile defenses in order to preserve the stability of mutual deterrence as strategic offenses are, over time, significantly reduced.

Since the debates over the new treaty and CTBT are likely to overlap in both time and substance, sequencing their submission for ratification will be a complex and consequential calculation for the administration. It would be useful to see progress in the Senate on CTBT before the NPT review conference in May, but the priority consideration should be to have sufficient affirmative votes in the Senate — even if that means putting off ratification until the fall or later — since a second defeat for the treaty would be a devastating blow both to the U.S. and to the cause of nonproliferation.

In order for CTBT to be ratified, senators, including some who voted against it in 1999, will have to be convinced that it is now verifiable. That will require extensive briefing on how the technology of verification has improved over the past decade. The administration should also seek research-and-development funds for further improvements.

The administration's presentation of CTBT to the Senate should be accompanied by assurances that the treaty will maintain the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile in a manner that maintains the credibility of deterrence, including extended deterrence to allies.

Brent Scowcroft was national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; Strobe Talbott was deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration; Nicholas Burns was undersecretary of state for political affairs in the George W. Bush administration; and Joseph Nye was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Clinton administration. Scowcroft and Nye are co-chairmen and Burns is executive director of the Aspen Strategy Group, and Talbott is president of the Brookings Institution. They wrote this article on the basis of a joint Aspen Strategy Group/Brookings seminar.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Scowcroft, Brent, Joseph Nye, Nicholas Burns, and Strobe Talbott.“U.S., Russia Must Lead on Arms Control.” Politico, October 13, 2009.

The Authors

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

Nicholas Burns