Does Obama's Nuclear Deal Reduce the Risk of Nuclear War?

06/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After a yearlong negotiation, this week President Obama's first foray into nuclear disarmament will consummate in the signing of a new treaty that will reduce the deployed strategic arsenals of Russia and the United States from roughly 2000 to 1500. The accord marks a down payment on the president's ambition to promote a world without nuclear weapons. But follow-up talks will face daunting hurdles, most importantly deflating continuing Russo-American distrust, conservative nuclear bureaucracies committed to the nuclear enterprise and concerns about other nuclear armed states and those looming. Overcoming these barriers to achieve the president's vision will be difficult.

Today's Russian-American nuclear arsenals mark remnants of a bygone era. With the passage of time, many of us have long forgotten how monstrous was the nuclear Damocles Sword the superpowers held over each other and the world. At the height of the Cold War Moscow's stocks included 45,000 strategic and tactical nuclear bombs, the United States held 33,000. Most were orders of magnitude more powerful than the weapons America dropped on Japan. Defense planners calculated deaths not in thousands or tens of thousands but tens of millions. Some climatologists feared that a large atomic conflict could place all mankind at risk through the pall of massive burning debris that would induce a "nuclear winter" putting agriculture and the other essentials for survival in jeopardy.

We have come along way from that Cold War era, but even with deep cuts, millions of people remain in the cross hairs. Any reasonable person should wince and ask why, now twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, does Moscow and Washington wish to remain nuclear hostages under the new agreement?

The answer may be found in the failure of both countries to relinquish the past. Each continues to equate large arsenals with stature. Other nuclear armed states appear to shrug satisfied in far more modest stocks.

But stature alone does not explain the arsenals' size. Rather Russo-American distrust remains deep. Even in his April 2009 call for a world without nuclear weapons, President Obama expressed resignation: "This goal will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime." He went on to say, "Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies." Mr. Obama repeated this point in the just released Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).

But the Obama administration will not be alone in defining the country's nuclear largess. Congress will play its role. In 2009 a Congressionally authorized bi-partisan evaluation chaired by former Defense Secretaries William Perry and James Schlesinger raised questions about trusting Moscow. The authors argue that notwithstanding Russia's disinclination to be a global challenger, to seek nuclear supremacy, to amass forces to threaten Europe and willingness to "reset" relations with the Obama administration, Russia has used nuclear threats to coerce some of its neighbors and may do so again. The "United States needs to hedge against that possibility" by not letting down its nuclear guard.

Such statements, supported by representations from the nuclear weapons laboratories that the tens of billions of dollars spent on stockpile stewardship and the life extension do not suffice to preserve the arsenal prompted forty Republican lawmakers to call for development of a new "modern warhead." The Obama Administration has responded in the NPR excluding new warhead development while allowing resurrection of older designs and components to maintain the arsenal with a remarkable boost of 13.4% in nuclear infrastructure spending.

Moscow adds to the juggernaut with multiple programs to deploy new land and sea based intercontinental ballistic missiles although its new military doctrine released February 2010 emphasizes the deterrent function of nuclear weapons not the war fighting.

Additional impetus to push back future arms reductions may come from exaggerated claims about the risk posed by such new nuclear weapons states as North Korea and lurking newcomers (there is only one), Iran. The fact that neither has the resources to compete with the United States and Russia will be brushed aside.

We can applaud the new nuclear arms control agreement as a step toward nuclear sanity. But it remains only a modest step to get us out of the nuclear woods.