- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2000

Was I the only one that noticed? For the past decade since the Cold War which produced massive numbers of nuclear warheads ended, U.S. policy toward Russia has been to get rid of as many Russian nuclear weapons as possible. Yet when the Russians recently proposed eliminating up to 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads more than current arms-control talks have considered, the Clinton administration said no.

What's going on here? It's a bit like the old Abbott and Costello comedy routine, "Who's on first? (Who being the name of a baseball player), that goes around in circles. The administration simply said it needed the 2,000-2,500 warheads that would remain if a Start 3 treaty now under discussion is realized. But Moscow wanted to go lower, to 1,500. At times, they have suggested perhaps going down to 1,000, and Russia's defense minister has said that by the end of the next decade, Russia could not afford to have more than 500 warheads. We want cuts, so do they. But we don't want those cuts.

We don't want to go any lower because we need these weapons for nuclear deterrence, according to State Department spokesman James Rubin. But how many nukes do we need for deterrence to be credible? China, which President Clinton has talked of as a "strategic partner," has a grand total of 20 count them strategic warheads that could hit the United States. Nuclear wannabes like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq would have only a handful if they did manage to succeed in joining the nuclear club. Russia, which has 6,000 strategic warheads, is no longer an adversary. During the Cold War, it was not hard to envision a conventional war in Europe escalating into nuclear conflict. But today it is difficult to spin a plausible scenario in which the United States and Russia escalate hostilities into a nuclear exchange. Russia has no Warsaw Pact, and not much of a conventional force to speak of. Yet U.S. nuclear planners still base their targeting plans on prospective Russian targets, though no one will say so.

If we want to reduce the Russian nuclear arsenal, why not go lower? Nuclear weapons are still important to deterrence, but our state-of-the-art conventional weapons allow the United States to redefine the nuclear aspect of deterrence. If we get leverage to reduce Russian and Chinese by going lower, this makes strategic sense.

You don't have to be an anti-nuker to argue that in light of U.S. conventional military capabilities, particularly, the advances in precision-guided munitions that we have seen in the bombing of Yugoslavia and the end of the Cold War, we can rethink the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. That leads many serious strategic hard-liners to conclude that we might be more secure with less nuclear weapons if it means fewer Russian weapons, and perhaps at some point (unless China wants to get in a nuclear arms race), fewer Chinese weapons. China is modernizing its nuclear arsenal, and U.S. and Russian nuclear behavior will have an impact on the shape of China's future nuclear arsenal.

If truth be told, the administration's position boils down to the reality that a beleaguered Russia can no longer afford the mythology of the Cold War, while U.S. policy appears burdened by Cold War baggage. Recall that it was the Russians who insisted on a U.S. commitment to Start 3 before its Duma ratified Start 2. In a strategy-free White House, bureaucratic inertia often guides national security policy. Thus, we need 2,000 strategic warheads because that's what our operations plans say. We need them because we need them. There is nobody home at the top on nuclear decision-making to pose the fundamental questions: Where do nuclear weapons fit into our defense policy; and how many do we need? At the end of the Cold War, President Bush unilaterally got rid of tactical nukes without any arms control lawyers; Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev later reciprocated. If we want to get rid Russian nukes, why even be hung up Start 2, why not just jump ahead and go down to 1,500?

What's more, we are contemplating building national missile defense systems. Fine. But every Russian nuke we get rid of is one less likely to be launched accidentally or any other way. Why have we spent some $2 billion in taxpayers money to denuclearize Russia? In fact, the Clinton administration has been trying to reach a package deal with Moscow, where they would agree with revision of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and we would agree to Start 3 and sweeten it with other cooperative ventures. Rejecting the Russian overture may make a deal more difficult to reach.

The U.S. failure to fundamentally rethink the role of nuclear weapons is one of Mr. Clinton's grand strategic failures. His legacy may be a squandering of the opportunity to de-emphasize nuclear weapons and, instead, may inadvertently foster a revaluing of nukes. Certainly Russia, whose conventional military forces have degraded enormously (in Chechnya, they are having trouble invading themselves) has revalued nuclear weapons. In January, Moscow published a new national security doctrine that lowered the threshold of nuclear use. A previous Russian doctrine statement called for use of nuclear weapons "in case of a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation." The new statement says nuclear weapons can be used "in the case of the need to repulse an armed aggression, if all other methods of resolving the crisis situation are exhausted."

Actions have consequences. The danger is that the window of opportunity that the end of the Cold War opened up to reconsider nuclear weapons may be closing. With it, the possibilities of capitalizing on the U.S. and Russian nuclear drawdown to lead by example and strengthen non-nuclear norms may be evaporating before we have had a chance to see if the momentum of build-down could translate into a world where nuclear dangers are reduced.

Robert A. Manning, is senior fellow and director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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