The Banality of Unilateral Nuclear Cuts

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U.S. nuclear weapons strategy remains largely based on a confrontation with the Soviet Union that no longer exists.

There is an emerging bipartisan and military consensus that it is time for an updated strategy and that a smaller stockpile would meet our security needs. Moreover, in this era of budget worries, further reductions could create significant cost savings that would free funding for higher priority security programs.

As President Obama begins his second term, early indications are that he plans to make the pursuit of a comprehensive nuclear threat reduction agenda a top priority. In his State of the Union address, the commander in chief indicated that as part of this agenda, the United States “will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals.”

A recent report by the Center for Public Integrity revealed that there appears to be consensus within the Administration and the military that the United States can reduce the size of its arsenal of deployed strategic warheads to between 1,000 and 1,100. (The New START treaty, which entered into force in February 2011, limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads apiece.)

Nevertheless, many congressional Republicans and conservative organizations are worried about the prospect of further nuclear reductions. Enter Robert Zarate, policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative. In a February 12 opinion piece published on Battleland, Zarate warns that the President could be contemplating unilateral cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal (i.e. without Russian reciprocity), a policy choice he characterizes as “a fringe concept.”

The evidence Zarate marshals to support these claims, however, is far from persuasive.

As the President noted in his State of the Union address, the administration’s goal is to pursue further cuts with Russia. But Zarate argues that we shouldn’t take the President at his word, because he nominated Chuck Hagel for defense secretary. The logic here is that Hagel was a contributor to a May 2012 report published by Global Zero that highlighted significant unilateral cuts as one illustrative option for the United States to reshape its outdated nuclear posture – even though the unilateral route was explicitly presented as suboptimal. At no point does the report say that the United States “should” pursue unilateral cuts.

In other words, Obama’s nomination of Hagel hardly indicates that the administration plans to pursue unilateral reductions.

The ideal way for Washington and Moscow to pursue a new round of cuts is via a legally-binding and verifiable treaty. Yet it is not the only way. As a November 2012 report from the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board notes, “In the near-term, so long as the United States and Russia implement the verification and monitoring provisions of New START, the two countries can verify deeper reductions [below New START] on strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.”

There’s precedent for such an approach.

In 1991, President George H. W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (and later Russian President Boris Yeltsin) mutually reduced significant numbers of shorter range (or nonstrategic) nuclear weapons without a formal treaty. Under these so-called Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, the United States and Russia are believed to have reduced their deployed shorter range stockpiles by an estimated 5,000 and 13,000 warheads, respectively. While this approach wasn’t perfect – the scale of the reductions can’t be verified, and Russia may not have fulfilled all of its pledges – there is no question that these reductions dramatically increased U.S. security.

What is often forgotten about this Bush policy is that he was prepared to retire those nuclear weapons with — or without — Russian reciprocity. The fact that the Soviet Union and later Russia followed suit turned out to be icing on the cake. All told, between 1988 and 1992 Bush reduced the total size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile (both strategic and non-strategic warheads) by nearly 50%, from 22,217 to 11,511 warheads.

Likewise, President George W. Bush also had an affinity for unilateral reductions. From 2001 to 2009, President Bush, like his father, cut the total nuclear stockpile by approximately 50%. Bush was initially prepared to make unilateral reductions to the deployed arsenal, but he was persuaded by Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to codify reductions in a treaty with Russia, which he did in 2002 in the form of the Moscow Treaty.

All of which brings us back to Zarate’s claim that unilateral cuts are “a fringe concept.” At no point does Zarate even mention, let alone grapple with, the reality that Republican presidents have pursued significant unilateral nuclear weapons reductions. Nor did any of the Republican senators who attacked Chuck Hagel for his affiliation with Global Zero during his confirmation hearing.

This doesn’t mean that unilateral cuts are always good idea – that would depend on the circumstance and what’s in the best interests of U.S. national security. But it does demonstrate that Democratic presidents (and their Cabinet choices) appear to be held to a different standard than their Republican counterparts.

Kingston Reif is director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. You can follow him on Twitter at @nukes_of_hazard.