Obama administration pursues arms control at great loss to US

The stakes could not be higher than in the area of diplomacy that affects the development and spread of nuclear weapons. And yet, in this area, it has become apparent the Obama administration values arms control for its own sake, even if it’s failing and at great and rapid strategic loss to the U.S.

In July of this year the administration formally recognized that Russia has been violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. It’s been a few weeks since the release to Congress of the official compliance report and rather than signaling that the U.S. will take action in response to the public revelations, Acting Undersecretary Rose Gottemoeller struck a conciliatory tone at a deterrence conference in Omaha, Nebraska that the administration remains committed to the INF Treaty, the New START Treaty, and is even pursuing further arms control treaties.

{mosads}She went on to assure the crowd that President Obama’s “offer” to eliminate U.S. nuclear forces that are deployed by another third beyond levels of New START remains a “sound” one, and that the U.S. will continue to work toward securing a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The INF Treaty, among other things, forbids each country from possessing, producing, or flight-testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Lawmakers began receiving briefings on the alleged violations two years ago. Indeed, according to media reports, then-Senator Kerry, in response to the briefing quipped, “We’re not going to pass another treaty in the U.S. Senate if our colleagues are sitting up here knowing somebody is cheating.” Now that he is the one “sitting up here knowing” he would be wise to take his own advice.

So, for starters, this (and the next) administration should come to the obvious conclusion that making an arms control deal with the Russians results in the U.S. painfully following the letter—and “spirit”– of the law while the Russians comply only when it is convenient for them. This calls into question the wisdom of any new arms control treaties with the Russians for the foreseeable future. Next, the White House should consider suspending the newest arms control treaty between the two countries, New START, from its nascent stages of implementation until Russia is found to be in compliance with INF.

Recall, New START draws the U.S. down to 1550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons, but since Russia wasn’t even at those levels, the treaty actually permits Russia to build up, which it is doing. Furthermore, it has loopholes involving counting rules. For example, a bomber is counted as one delivery vehicle, but a country can pile on as many nuclear weapons on board as it can fit. Most egregiously, the treaty is silent on the matter of tactical nuclear weapons, of which the Russians possess ten times as many as the U.S. They may be considered “tactical” to the U.S. because their ranges can’t reach U.S. soil, but those short-range nuclear weapons are strategic in nature to U.S. allies within range.

The CTBT and the FMCT are beset with verification problems. But even more, CTBT, with the stated goal of banning all nuclear testing, would move diplomacy of U.S. security treaties, a sovereign and solemn responsibility, to an international body—a group within the U.N. Additionally, CTBT requires the ratification by a list of other countries including Iran and North Korea. Even if, in some alternate reality, those countries agreed to ratification, they could still conduct nuclear tests up to certain yields without being detected. And although the U.S. has unilaterally ceased nuclear testing, it may one day find the need to resume testing if it is to maintain its deterrent credibility.

This week in the Wall Street Journal, Keith Payne and Mark Schneider rightly conclude, “Russian leaders such as Vladmir Putin appear to read U.S. silence as weakness and timidity, a perception which undoubtedly feeds their arms control lawlessness.”

On April 5, 2009, Obama laid out his global zero agenda and signaled that he takes arms control treaties quite seriously. He said, “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” Those are necessary conditions for negotiating and enforcing treaties that will actually increase the security of the U.S. Disastrously, it seems as though the President is as likely to abide by those principles as Russia and the world’s authoritarian regimes are to go along with their legal commitments, let alone the global zero agenda.

Heinrichs is a foreign policy analyst specializing in nuclear deterrence and missile defense. She is the former manager of the House Bi-Partisan Missile Defense Caucus


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