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The New Realism of Arms Control

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This article was co-authored with Ploughshares Fund research assistant Benjamin Loehrke.

This week, UK Foreign Minister David Miliband told a small gathering at the New America Foundation that Britain was serious about nuclear disarmament. So are a lot of people. Arms control is back, big time.

It is not just liberals and progressives. Arms control is the new realism. Conservatives who just a few years ago condemned treaties as "the illusion of security" are now embracing agreements to reduce nuclear arms.

James Schelsinger, former Republican secretary of defense and energy, just endorsed a new treaty with Russia, "The moment appears ripe for a renewal of arms control with Russia, and this bodes well for a continued reductions in the nuclear arsenal," said the US Strategic Commission he co-chairs. Meanwhile, former Republican national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, who once opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, is now "cautiously optimistic" that the administration can get it ratified.

What's Going On?

Schlesinger once led the charge against further nuclear reductions and helped frame the Bush administration's alternative approach. "The necessary target for arms control is to constrain those who desire to acquire nuclear weapons," he said in his 2000 article, "The Demise of Arms Control?" In this view, the threat comes from other states, and a large, robust US nuclear arsenal was needed to counter proliferation. But last week Schlesinger retreated. The commission whose leadership he shares with former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry reported to Congress "the United States must seek additional cooperative measures of a political kind, including for example arms control and nonproliferation."

Brent Scowcroft is a perennial realist and represents a different wing of the Republican Party. He was never ideologically opposed to negotiated reductions with the Russians. However, in 1999 he opposed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. Last week, Scowcroft also shifted. The Council on Foreign Relations Task Force he co-chaired with the incredibly busy Bill Perry recommended the Senate ratify the nuclear test ban he once questioned. They also agreed that "U.S.-Russia relationship is ripe for a new formal arms control agreement," one "that would reflect current defense needs and realities and would result in deeper arms reductions."

Behind the Shift

Over the last eight years, nuclear threats grew and the Bush policies failed. As the threats increased from Iran, Pakistan and nuclear terrorism, these issues moved to the forefront of national security debates. The strategic landscape shifted beneath conservatives' feet, and they are trying to regain their footing. Many are now rejecting the ideological rigidity that led directly to the policy failures and are moving towards a new realism, a balance of deterrence and diplomacy.

President Barack Obama is forcing the change. He transformed US nuclear policy with his speech in Prague April 5. Turning campaign promises into government policy, he stated "clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." He detailed practical steps towards that goal, including "immediately and aggressively pursuing US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty."

His officials are fanning out like icebreakers on frozen seas, opening up new passages to Europe, Russia and Asia. Some routes, like those to North Korea, are still blocked. But others show signs of rapid progress. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is hopeful of quick agreement on joint reductions, "The U.S. approach seems very constructive to me."

Schlesinger is still a nuclear hawk opposed to even attempting nuclear disarmament. Scowcroft still favors a large US nuclear arsenal. But both (and many of their conservative colleagues) have shifted. While not endorsing Obama's ultimate goal, they support several of his preliminary steps. That is enough for now. The key is to forge broad agreement on the immediate policies whose fulfillment can build confidence in the efficacy of following moves.

The New York Times, editorializing on the US shift, underscored the realism of Obama's policies:

Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia and the United States together still have more than 20,000 nuclear weapons. It is time to focus on the 21st-century threats: states like Iran building nuclear weapons and terrorists plotting to acquire their own. Until this country convincingly redraws its own nuclear strategy and reduces its arsenal, it will not have the credibility and political weight to confront those threats.

If Obama holds firmly to his ultimate goal, it seems that prospect are improving for building a bipartisan consensus on the treaties and diplomacy that can help realize his vision.