Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Critical Look at the Arguments in Favor of START

There's a joint op-ed in today's Washington Post by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and Colin Powell called, "The Republican case for ratifying New START." Leaving aside the fact that at least one of these men, Colin Powell, is a shill for the Obama administration and a true Republican In Name Only, let's look at their reasons for supporting the treaty.  

The world is safer today because of the decades-long effort to reduce its supply of nuclear weapons.
It's not a good idea to start off an argument with a baseless assertion. There's no evidence at all that the various arms control agreements have made the world one bit safer. We are safer from the threat of a massive nuclear war because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But of course even that collapse has given rise to other potential nuclear threats. 
[The New START Treaty] is a modest and appropriate continuation of the START I treaty that expired almost a year ago.
So what? We should continue it just to continue it?
It reduces the number of nuclear weapons that each side deploys while enabling the United States to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent and preserving the flexibility to deploy those forces as we see fit.
You know what else preserves our flexibility? Not signing treaties that might hinder our options.
The commander of our nuclear forces has testified that the 1,550 warheads allowed under this treaty are sufficient for all our missions - and seven former nuclear commanders agree.
So by that logic, if 1,550 are sufficient, wouldn't it be better to have more?
The defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the Missile Defense Agency - all originally appointed by a Republican president - argue that New START is essential for our national defense.
What an utterly ridiculous assertion. This treaty has nothing to do with strengthening our national defense. It's a purely diplomatic maneuver that at best won't harm our national defense.
The most important thing is to have bipartisan support for the treaty, as previous nuclear arms treaties did.
If you want bipartisan support, then don't try to get a treaty through a lame-duck session of Congress.
Second, New START preserves our ability to deploy effective missile defenses. The testimonies of our military commanders and civilian leaders make clear that the treaty does not limit U.S. missile defense plans.
Really? How about reading what you write next?
Although the treaty prohibits the conversion of existing launchers for intercontinental and submarine-based ballistic missiles, our military leaders say they do not want to do that because it is more expensive and less effective than building new ones for defense purposes.
So actually the treaty does in fact limit missile defense plans, just not the ones we happen to favor at the current time. But missile defense is a work in progress. We don't need to impose artificial limitations without good reason.
Finally, the Obama administration has agreed to provide for modernization of the infrastructure essential to maintaining our nuclear arsenal.
Well that's just great. But we could and should do that anyway. It has nothing to do with needing to sign a new treaty with Russia.
some question why an arms control treaty with Russia matters. It matters because it is in both parties' interest that there be transparency and stability in their strategic nuclear relationship.
Ok, that's a reasonable argument. But now let's ruin it by following it with this:
It also matters because Russia's cooperation will be needed if we are to make progress in rolling back the Iranian and North Korean programs. Russian help will be needed to continue our work to secure "loose nukes" in Russia and elsewhere. And Russian assistance is needed to improve the situation in Afghanistan, a breeding ground for international terrorism.
Oh come on. Does any of those men actually believe the nonsense they are spouting? I seriously doubt it. Russia has its own interests in securing loose nukes. Russia isn't going to be the slightest bit of help in Afghanistan or North Korea, and it's part of the problem with Iran. 
Obviously, the United States does not sign arms control agreements just to make friends. Any treaty must be considered on its merits.
That's not at all obvious. If you consider the treaty on just its merits, it makes little sense. You then have to ask, why are we imposing limitations on our defense capabilities for little return? 
But we have here an agreement that is clearly in our national interest, and we should consider the ramifications of not ratifying it.
If it was clearly in our national interest there wouldn't be any debate about it. My prior position on this treaty was that it was essentially harmless. But after reading such bad arguments in favor of it, I'm beginning to question that notion. The main reasons to sign this treaty are to stay on decent terms with Russia, avoid any sort of new nuclear arms race, and to have access to good intelligence on Russia's nuclear arsenal. These arguments are mentioned in the editorial, but are buried under the unfounded assertions, wishful thinking and hyperbolic nonsense about how supposedly important this treaty is to U.S. national security. If I'm a Republican lawmaker reading this editorial, it's going to make me take a harder look at the new START treaty. It certainly wouldn't push me toward speeding it into passage.


  1. The main advantage of the treaty is the fact that is limits the number of Russian nukes to 1,550, thereby sharply decreasing the number of unsecured warheads. As far as preventing terrorism, limiting the availability of nuclear warheads is a fairly important step.

  2. "The main advantage of the treaty is the fact that is limits the number of Russian nukes to 1,550, thereby sharply decreasing the number of unsecured warheads."

    1550 is an arbitrary number that means nothing. You think that if there are more than 1550 that means they are automatically going to be less secure?

    "As far as preventing terrorism, limiting the availability of nuclear warheads is a fairly important step. "

    Again, that has little to do with the treaty. Either Russia is going to secure its nuclear warheads or it isn't. If it is stupid and careless enough to somehow lose control of its weapons, that could happen no matter how many it has. In theory it's easier to track a smaller number, but there has never been a case of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists even when arsenals were far larger during the Cold War.

  3. True, no weapon has ever fallen into the hands of terrorists. However, that doesn't mean they won't. Furthermore, so what if 1,550 is an arbitrary number? It's less than either country has now, but still more than enough to ensure MAD. Everyone gets to spend less and the world is mad a little bit more secure. Win-win.

  4. I think the treaty is relatively harmless. But there are still questionable aspects. There's no need to rush it through. For example, see this blog post.

  5. If 1550 is enough for MAD, why would either country produce more? Wouldn't they simply be wasting money? Why doesn't the US maintain 1550, then sit back and laugh as Russia squanders its resources, uselessly producing beyond the 1550 MAD level?

  6. Because during the 70's and 80's, people were concerned about the missile gap. So we built a whole bunch more warheads than were needed to calm public opinion.

  7. In theory if one side has a huge advantage, depending on the type of missiles, that could give it the potential to execute a decapitating first strike. That's also one of the main arguments that has been used against missile defense. MAD only makes sense -- if it makes sense at all -- if the A part actually means "assured."

    Again in theory, the concern about a decapitating strike can be countered by a launch on warning policy. But actually launching a retaliatory strike based on electronic warning as opposed to a confirmed attack is a pretty scary prospect. Had it actually been carried out there would have already been a nuclear war, since there were a number of false alarms during the Cold War.

  8. True. However, SLBM's make the question moot. A nation can launch a second strike even assuming they are caught completely by surprise, and have no time to launch their ICBM's.