Let me be clear. Negotiated nuclear arms control treaties are good for American security. They help provide certainty and transparency, and a legal framework for managing what can often be challenging and complex issues. A process where two countries have to agree on something that meets their mutual interest moderates the behavior of both states and can produce associated benefits for the broader relationship. And in the case of strategic nuclear arms control between the United States and Russia, arms agreement have wider benefits in helping to sustain the broader international nonproliferation regime.
All this as a given, there has been little cause for optimism that the United States and Russia will be able to agree on a new agreement to reduce mutual arsenals below the 1,550 strategic offensive nuclear weapon levels established in New START Treaty anytime soon. Russia has tried to load up the list of demands with too many unrelated issues and, frankly, depends more on its nuclear weapons than does the United States. They need more nuclear weapons than we do to feel secure.
Nyet to a Russia Veto
Moreover, given Russia's lack of interest in reductions, it is unwise to create a situation where Russia has veto power over how America sets its nuclear priorities or allocates its scarce defense dollars. If Moscow wants to waste its money on nuclear weapons they can't use, why should America be forced to do the same? America's military and civilian leaders believe we have many more nuclear weapons than we need, regardless of Russia's arsenal. Why should we maintain an oversized force just because Russia's conventional forces are weaker than our own?
However, the decision by President Putin to give former NSA contractor Edward Snowden asylum essentially kills any chance of a negotiated treaty with Russia for the remainder of the Obama presidency. Even if Russia were ready to deal, no U.S.-Russia Treaty will be approved by the United States Senate in the Snowden aftermath.
Even before Snowden fled to Moscow, there was a solid block of 20 GOP Senators ready to oppose any Obama initiative based purely on its source. This bloc is simply unprepared to cooperate with President Obama on the nuclear reduction agenda. Some believe the U.S. should maintain or even expand its current nuclear forces, other do not trust the president and still others are seeking to deny the president any political victories on any subject. In sum, any Treaty submitted by President Obama would have been a tough sell, as witnessed by the New START battle.
Now, in the wake of Snowden's successful asylum request, any Treaty with Russia would be more radioactive than the warheads it would seek to eliminate. Those predisposed to see Russia as a geo-political adversary see vindication and others, perhaps half a dozen thought to be running for President in 2016, would seek to posture against Russia at the expense of any nuclear Treaty. Striking at a nuclear reduction agreement with no material affect on them or their states would be too tempting a target to pass up.
Even in the darkest days of the cold war, the United States and Soviet Union found ways to manage their nuclear competition. Perhaps the Senate took their responsibilities more seriously then, or perhaps our political system as become too ionized and toxic for Senators to rise above too many issues. Regardless, any US-Russia nuclear pact submitted to the Senate has zero chance of approval in the next three years.
This is a bigger issue than whether the president should meet with Russian President Putin in Moscow. If there is progress to be made on the nuclear agenda or elsewhere, the president should pursue it. But given the conditions in the United States, discussions should focus on possible bilateral reciprocal steps both countries can take to further reduce nuclear numbers and increase nuclear transparency. Anything else is likely wasted effort. Worse, completing an agreement likely to be rejected by the Senate would create a point of conflict where one need not exist.
More Than One Way To Protect America
Instead, the president and his advisers should prepare other options for reducing the nuclear arsenal to the lowest level consistent with American security. A recent review has found that level to be perhaps 30 percent below those set in New START. The costs of maintaining an oversized arsenal may be manageable in the next few years but replacing aging system one for one will be prohibitively expensive. At the same time, GOP members of the House and Senate are already seeking to tie the President's hands and deny him funds to implement even those reductions already approved in New START and the law of the land. Veto threats will be required to protect the President's authority as commander in chief to set U.S. military requirements, an prevent Congress for deny him funds to eliminate systems no longer needed for deterrence or security.
That Russia should shelter Edward Snowden is an unfortunate body blow to the already weakened U.S.-Russian relationship. To be sure, we continue to have shared interests and should work together where we can to pursue them. But the political fallout from the asylum approval make all but clear that codifying nuclear reductions by Treaty will be impossible, leaving the president with fewer options for further reducing the role of American nuclear weapons in our security policy. But those options remain viable and for our security must be pursued.