As a demonstration of the axiom that the world remains a dangerous place, the events of the past few weeks have been highly instructive. Iran reveled in the announcement of its Qom uranium processing facility, making the Middle East an even more parlous place. At the United Nations, the toxic rants of Libya’s Moamar Gaddafi and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were all the more disturbing because the two men are not fringe figures but the leaders of their respective countries. Yet the import of all this has gone unnoticed by the Obama administration, which has decided to take this unlikely opportunity to lead the United States towards eventual nuclear disarmament.
That goal is at the heart of a UN Security Council resolution unanimously accepted by the five “declared” nuclear powers – America, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain – and committing them to work together towards disarmament. But despite it being described by some as a diplomatic win for the administration — an administration noticeably lacking in major international successes – this achievement is actually quite modest. It gives President Obama the appearance of a diplomatic breakthrough, and some good press, but it does nothing to make the world a safer place. For instance, it will have no effect on the nuclear weapons programs of Iran or Syria. Instead, the plan will likely weaken the United States while exempting its enemies.
So, why has the administration supported it? One reason is that the president is a true believer in that nuclear disarmament project. He has been talking about the need to eliminate nuclear weapons since before he was elected. In pursuit of that vision, he’s been helped by Congress, which on several occasions has refused to provide funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. This program would replace America’s aging stockpile of nuclear warheads, built in the 1970s and 1980s for use against the Soviet Union, with more advanced, safer, more accurate, and overall less powerful warheads (the reduced power would be offset by the greater accuracy). Defense Secretary Robert Gates has publicly disagreed with the administration on this, citing the urgent need of the United States to maintain a reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Gates has it right. For nuclear warheads, reliability is paramount. As America’s warheads age well past their intended lifetimes, doubts have developed about whether their internal components might have deteriorated with age. If there is any doubt as to a warhead’s chances of detonating, more warheads will have to be assigned to each target, leading to more radioactive contamination and collateral damage. New warheads would do far less damage while still maintaining America’s deterrent. By forcing the military to continually extend the warheads’ life spans and thus reducing the confidence they have in each one, the administration is actually making an exchange of nuclear weapons more destructive than it would have to be.
Combine this malign neglect of America’s existing nuclear arsenal with this month’s UN disarmament resolution, and it seems that President Obama is bent on achieving his dream of nuclear disarmament by stealth. Having already canceled a major missile defense program in Eastern Europe, he now seems determined to allow America’s warheads to rust into uselessness. America will give up its nuclear warheads simply by refusing to replace them.
Meanwhile, as America’s stockpile ages and diplomats grandstand at the United Nations, Russia and China are improving their nuclear weapons systems, while Iran continues working on its own. All these powers must do is maintain their stockpiles at their current level and wait until America’s military advantages slip away. Russia and China don’t need to spend more money. They just need patience.
If President Obama hopes that the United Nations will offer him a way to turn America’s growing weakness into a moral virtue, he should recall the experiences of one of his predecessors, Harry Truman. Truman also went to the United Nations to try and cut a deal on a world free of nuclear weapons. After months of diplomatic wrangling, the talks collapsed, and the nuclear arms race began.
President Obama is not wrong to wish for a world free of nuclear weapons. But he is naïve to imagine that he can get there through agreements that erode American power while doing nothing to reign in the rogue states that make the risk of nuclear war truly worrying.