In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a historic symbol of the end of the Cold War, President Obama announced new plans to move towards reducing the American and global nuclear weapons stockpiles in order to reduce the risks these dangerous weapons pose to humanity as a whole.
Limiting the spread of nuclear weapons has long been a priority for Obama, dating at least back to his time as a Senator, when he introduced and authored several bills on the topic. In April 2009, the president declared moving towards “a world without nuclear weapons” to be a key American foreign policy objective.
The Administration has principally pursued this goal through treaty negotiations with Russia, which produced the “New START” treaty in 2010. Under New START, each former Cold War adversary agreed to cut their deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550, a 30 percent reduction from the previous 2002 bilateral agreement between the two states. Notably, however, New START placed no limits on non-deployed warheads.
The initiative Obama announced on Wednesday at Brandenburg would build on New START by cutting US and Russian deployed warhead levels by (ideally) another third, though the final reductions would likely be determined in negotiations between the two states. “After a comprehensive review,” Obama said, “I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.”
The “comprehensive review” of US nuclear posture assessed what sort of reductions would be consistent with the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a document that served as the blueprint for the Obama Administration’s nuclear strategy. The NPR concluded, among other things, that the United States would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and that “[t]he role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security and military strategy has been reduced significantly in recent decades, but further steps can and should be taken at this time.” Obama also proposed negotiations on reducing U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, as well as a new treaty on the production of fissile material and renewed effort to pass the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty limiting nuclear testing.
The conclusion that the US could reduce its nuclear arsenal without threatening the credibility of its deterrent is supported by independent analysis. As CAP’s Larry Korb writes, “analyses by the Air War College, Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander of U.S. Strategic Command; and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) all argue that these numbers of deployed and reserve nuclear weapons and warheads are far more than the United States needs for the purpose of deterrence in the 21st century.” Korb also finds that moderate reductions in nuclear stockpiles could save “tens of billions” of dollars over the next decade through reduced maintenance and repair costs.
Even though the president’s plan “affirms that the United States will maintain a credible [nuclear] deterrent,” it’s not clear nuclear weapons really do serve that purpose. There are only nine nuclear-armed countries globally, which means that there’s a very small sample size for drawing conclusions about nuclear weapons deterring major war. While there is some statistical support for the idea that nuclear-armed states are less likely to wage major wars, there’s also evidence that they exacerbate the risk of limited use of force between those powers. This seemingly contradictory finding is called the “stability-instability paradox” by international relations scholars, and it raises concerns that these low-level conflicts might escalate unpredictably.
Nuclear accidents and terrorism also exacerbate the risks posed by nuclear weapons. There have been several “near-miss” cases wherein Russian and American early warning systems misidentified blips as missile launches from the other side, nearly leading to a misguided nuclear response. The NPR identifies the risk that terrorists acquire poorly secured nuclear weapons or fissile material from a place like Pakistan or from a rogue state like North Korea as an equally critical concern for US nuclear policy as traditional deterrence.