Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs Conference
Carnegie Council, U.S. Army War College
U.S. Global Engagement: Report of Two Years of Activities
The Pocantico Center
June 1-3, 2011
Thank you for inviting me to participate in the conference.
I am delighted only to have to comment on Stephen Blank’s paper rather than do any original thinking or writing myself.
And while he focused more on the broader U.S.-Russian reset question, I will focus more narrowly on nuclear weapons and treaty issues between the two questions.
When I first gave a talk for the Carnegie Council a year and a half ago, I was brimming with confidence about the ambitious Obama Administration agenda on nuclear issues, particularly after the President’s wide-ranging and terrific speech in Prague, the Czech Republic in April 2009.
While there has been important progress since that speech, that progress has not led to great momentum on other parts of that nuclear agenda, at least not in the immediate future.
But the immediate future is just that; I think we can look to make more progress beginning in 2013.
Our Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has held a series of sessions to discuss next steps after New START. Attending have been some of the best and the brightest in the arms control community in Washington, DC as well as congressional staff.
While the discussions are still on-going, there is a surprisingly and unanimously pessimistic view about what might happen next.
That is, another bilateral arms control treaty with the Russians is likely to be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
That consensus does not mean we should give up on the goal of another treaty, but that in the near-term, we should pursue less ambitious steps.
I would give several reasons for these cautious views.
First, the Senate vote in December for New START and the subsequent U.S.-Russian ratification became not an important stepping stone to greater reductions, or the road to a world without nuclear weapons, but rather the completion of a useful step.
And after the vote, the Senate appeared to be saying let’s move on to other topics.
That is, it was a heavy lift in the Senate to win the required 71 votes. And the immediate post-vote reaction in Congress was okay, we have checked that box, and now let’s turn to deficit reduction, jobs and other issues the voters care more about.
While the New START campaign was useful to educate a lot of new Senators about nuclear issues, this education did not whet their appetites for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or resurrecting the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.
All these treaties were listed on the agenda for today’s meeting.
And if anything, President Obama’s stated goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, while popular worldwide and in the arms control community, was a net negative in the Senate. Let us just say the Senate was not inspired by the President’s Prague speech the way so many of the rest of us were.
Second, and I know it will shock this group to think that politics can intrude on national security issues, but there is the matter of presidential elections in both Russia and the United States.
Obviously there are those here that can speak to the political uncertainty in Russia that is leading to policy uncertainty.
But that one kind of uncertainty is leading to the other kind is certainly true in this country.
I do not expect any major policy changes on nuclear issues until and unless President Obama is re-elected in November 2012.
While other international issues will intrude on President Obama’s agenda, including revolution in the Middle East, withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and a pending decision on troop levels in Afghanistan, don’t expect any major international security departures of policy over the next 17 months.
Third, is the imbalance of conventional, non-nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia.
In one of the great ironies of history, where during the Cold War there was a perceived imbalance of conventional forces that favored the Soviet Union, which led the United States to be more reliant on nuclear weapons, now the nuclear shoe is on the other foot.
The estimation — again, there are greater experts than I in this room — is that Russia is in no hurry to go to much lower nuclear numbers because of that disparity.
Fourth, the next round of negotiations will be more complex because of the need to deal with tactical or non-strategic nuclear weapons and the likelihood that U.S. nuclear weapons in storage and the long-range conventional weapons planned by this country will have to be dealt with. These issues were not part of New START
And fifth and last, in order not to take too much time, is the controversy over United States missile defense plans.
Now in the last couple of weeks, I have attended briefings by two administration officials involved in missile defense. They both assured me that the U.S. plans for the phased adaptive system in Europe are no threat to Russian nuclear forces and will not be so even after all four phases of the U.S. system are deployed.
Now this may be true or may not be true.
But the important point is that Russian leaders do not accept these reassurances and continue to believe that U.S. missile defense deployments at some point in the future will threaten their nuclear deterrent.
As a result, Russia wants limits on missile defense that the United States Senate will never accept.
All this is not to say that things are hopeless.
There are possible confidence building measures in the near-term, such as greater transparency of non-strategic weapons or on plans for missile defense, or matching unilateral reductions are possible
If the Russian nuclear numbers decline below the New START limits because of obsolescence – and a State Department report on June 1 suggests that the Russians are already below those limits in their number of launchers and warheads, perhaps a way could be found for the U.S. to go down to those same levels.
Or the two countries can accelerate their planned reductions ahead of the 2018 deadline.
And Russia and the United States can continue to cooperate on non-proliferation efforts, including on the four-year goal of securing all stocks of plutonium and highly enriched uranium worldwide.
Last point, the pessimism that I cite is true today and will be true in 2012.
But there is ample time beginning in 2013 after the elections to work out a new nuclear arms reduction deal well before New START expires.
There is ample time to consider ways to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty and bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty before the Senate a second time.
And an extra bonus to look forward to 2013: Sen. Jon Kyl, the leading opponent of New START and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, will no longer be in the United States Senate.
John Isaacs has served as executive director of Council for a Livable World since 1991, headed the Washington office since 1981 and lobbied for the Council since 1978. He also serves as Executive Director of the Council’s sister organization, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.