Negotiated cuts: A new nuclear weapons treaty is not the only option

By Anna Péczeli | January 27, 2014

Editor's note: The Voices of Tomorrow feature is a monthly essay, opinion piece, or multimedia presentation authored by a high school student, college undergraduate, or graduate student. Submissions should be emailed to Ryan Huffman at [email protected].

 In his 2013 Berlin address, President Obama announced his nuclear agenda for the second term and declared that, with a comprehensive review of US nuclear guidance completed, his administration would seek further “negotiated cuts” with Russia to reduce deployed strategic nuclear arsenals by up to one-third. This would mean a reduction from the 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads allowed by the New START Treaty, to between 1,000 and 1,100 warheads.

To implement this agenda of negotiated cuts, the Obama administration seems to prefer a legally binding new treaty with Moscow. But concluding a new treaty would require a negotiating process that would almost certainly be long and complex, ending with Senate ratification. Moscow is not likely to start negotiations on a new treaty while New START is in force (until 2021), or at least until it is fully implemented by the United States. (Russia has already met the warhead limits of the treaty.) Also, Russian approval of a new treaty would require a lot of political capital, as Russia would probably insist on expanding the scope of negotiations to include other factors affecting strategic stability (such as missile defense, conventional capabilities, or the militarization of outer space).

A new treaty is only one possible approach to weapons reductions, however. It is worth taking a look at the advantages and pitfalls of three other options: a bilateral amendment to the New START treaty, informal reciprocal reductions, or unilateral reductions. As surprising as it may seem, at the moment the last option may be the most feasible choice for the United States to make.

As with a new treaty, a bilateral amendment would give the Senate too much power over the fate of further reductions. The current political situation suggests that the White House would most likely fail to secure enough support for any further cuts. Obama’s Republican opponents are concerned that the remaining arsenal would not be enough to maintain a credible deterrence. They also claim that the president has failed to fulfill the modernization promise he made in exchange for New START ratification; therefore they would probably seek to link any further cuts to the status of nuclear modernization programs. Regardless of what the Obama administration prefers, defense hawks in Congress seem determined to prevent any further weapons cuts until their preconditions are met.

A bilateral amendment. One alternative to a new treaty is for the United States and Russia to set lower ceilings, but to stay within the framework of the New START Treaty. This could be done by attaching a bilateral amendment to the treaty—agreeing to deeper reductions under the same verification measures and treaty obligations (perhaps with an extended timeframe). This approach, however, would still require Senate ratification.

Informal reciprocal reductions. Another alternative to a new treaty would be an informal understanding that both Washington and Moscow would pursue deeper reductions without codifying new ceilings. This informal approach would provide flexibility, but the New START Treaty would still remain in force, guaranteeing the advantages provided by a legal framework—for example, verification measures. With this approach, Obama could skirt Senate ratification and implement reductions using his executive power to issue a presidential decision directive.

This strategy has its own set of dangers, though. Upsetting the Senate might interfere with other important objectives of the administration, such as ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or negotiations with Iran. Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress could use their legislative power to block funding for the implementation of the New START Treaty or propose, as they already did, legislative measures against any reductions beyond those agreed to in the treaty. Although bypassing the Senate might provoke legislative retaliation, the informal approach has the advantages of a legally binding approach, and is politically and technically more feasible than a new treaty.

A problem shared by the options above is the absence of incentive for Moscow to come on board. Implementation of the New START Treaty provides important verification and transparency measures, but it might not be enough to keep Moscow interested in further reductions. Moving toward smaller nuclear arsenals is not necessarily important to Moscow, as long as the United States retains a considerable part of its strategic forces in reserve and could again upload more than 4,000 nuclear warheads in a relatively short amount of time. According to Pavel Podvig, an expert on the Russian nuclear arsenal and a Bulletin columnist, two things could keep Moscow at the table: the prestige of Russia’s special dialogue with the United States, and extending the scope of negotiations to other issues that Russia views as a threat to its strategic capabilities.

Unilateral reductions. A third option is for Washington to commit to further reductions immediately, without waiting for Moscow. In this case, Russia would not be given any veto power over further reductions. This approach also has the advantage that unilateral US reductions do not rule out the possibility of future reciprocal steps by the Russians. In fact, historic evidence (for example, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives by the Bush administration in 1991 and 1992) strongly suggests that Moscow would probably implement similar measures.

As with informal reciprocal reductions, the unilateral path would be easier, from a legal point of view, than a new or amended treaty. And because Russian consent would not be needed, unilateral reductions would eliminate the need to include incentives beyond the scope of previous START negotiations. Although it goes against the pledge to pursue “negotiated cuts” and risks upsetting Congress, unilateral action is the least costly and quickest option. If the administration is committed to reducing its deployed strategic nuclear weapons to between 1,000 and 1,100 warheads, the unilateral approach seems to be the most feasible way at the moment, and past experience suggests that Moscow would eventually follow the US lead.

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