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Why Obama’s Disarmament Dream May Be About to Die

Remember President Obama’s plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons? You’d think Congress’s super committee negotiations, with their built-in trigger for massive defense cuts, would bolster that vision: Nukes might make an appealing target for appropriators trying to save money, since they’re difficult to maintain and we never actually use them. But, in fact, the long-run result of the military’s cash crunch could be the exact opposite. If the super committee doesn’t reach an agreement, and America’s conventional military faces across-the-board cuts, we may become more, not less, reliant on nukes. And Obama’s disarmament dream could be dead for good.

When Obama came into office, he vowed to put the United States and the world on a trajectory toward nuclear disarmament. This meant striving to reduce our nuclear arms whenever possible in negotiated concert with other nations, rather than increasing their role in U.S. foreign policy as the Bush administration had done. He downgraded the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. strategic posture; re-emphasized America’s commitment to the nonproliferation treaty, which says we must disarm; and negotiated New START, a treaty cutting our nuclear arsenal alongside Russia’s. From these steps, he envisions a virtuous cycle of denuclearization that would leave the United States safer.

Yet President Obama’s nuclear policy depends on a very fragile political and intellectual consensus in Washington. While some criticized the anti-proliferation vision he laid out in Prague in 2009 as dovish and idealistic, it had the backing of a broad spectrum of centrists and hawks—from Republican Senator John McCain, to a who’s-who of key players from the Reagan administration, to Henry Kissinger. This is hardly the most likely cast of disarmament advocates. As recently as 1987, Kissinger was warning that “[a]ny Western leader who indulges the Soviets’ disingenuous fantasies of a nuclear-free world courts unimaginable perils.”

But many of these figures, including Kissinger, now support nuclear disarmament because circumstances have changed: Since the end of the Cold War, America has been enjoying a new strategic moment in which it faces no similarly powerful opponent. In this context, they contend, moving toward “global zero”—the elimination of all nuclear arsenals—will prevent the world from becoming ever more threatening to the United States as nuclear know-how spreads. Yet there is an important underlying condition which binds this elite consensus and gives it legs among Washington’s rank-and-file: To a large extent, the newfound enthusiasm for disarmament presupposes that the United States will retain an overwhelming conventional military advantage. As the Obama administration’s own nuclear posture review notes, “fundamental changes in the international security environment in recent years—including the growth of unrivaled U.S. conventional military capabilities, major improvements in missile defenses, and the easing of Cold War rivalries—enable us to fulfill [our] objectives at significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.”

In other words, we know that we can now rely on our conventional military might not only to defend human rights around the globe and protect our allies, but to secure our basic strategic interests, including deterring our enemies from threatening or attacking us. In this sense, nuclear disarmament can be seen as the best means of perpetuating, for as long as possible, the moment of American preeminence. Yet recent events—both within and beyond the scope of our control—have caused the foundations of this consensus to begin to tremble.

First, there’s the super committee. If its negotiations fail, and the budget trigger goes off, national security funding would be slashed by as much as $950 billion over ten years—a scenario that Defense Secretary Panetta has called “nuts.” The seemingly omnipotent military we’ve grown used to would change, becoming smaller, reducing training budgets and investments in future capabilities, and downsizing the number and variety of missions it could accomplish. All this would happen, meanwhile, at a time when other major nations are on a military development binge: Vladimir Putin is hiking Russia’s defense budget by 60 percent over two years; China’s budget goes up by 12.7 percent this year, putting it on a path toward spending parity with the U.S.; and India just goosed its budget by 11.6 percent. Commentators often claim that the United States spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined, but that ratio is already out of date and decreasing at a rapid clip.

If the super committee fails to reach an agreement, we will experience an even sharper adjustment relative to the rest of the world, and the psychology of nuclear arms cuts could change dramatically. The consensus that existed during Obama’s brief unipolar moment would erode, as the influence of elder statesmen wanes and congressional hawks drift toward nuclear enthusiasts who never supported the goal of disarmament in the first place, concluding that our conventional edge is less and less of a substitute for a “robust” nuclear deterrent. At that point, with anxiety rising over America’s military decline, the political pendulum may begin to swing the other way. We would again emphasize nuclear weapons as a way of becoming “cheap hawk[s],” to use Newt Gingrich’s phrase, as we did during other periods of conventional force reduction and military pullback like the 1950s.

Of course, there are other convincing cases to be made for nuclear disarmament—we could eliminate hundreds of nukes without much changing the military balance, for one, and there’s the threat of loose nuclear material—but none of them are nearly as pleasing to the hawkish legislators and policymakers who have enormous sway in Washington. When paired with huge conventional force cuts, the idea that a world without nuclear weapons would preserve American hegemony falls flat. Instead, we would have new calls to increase the role of nuclear weapons in defending our allies; in deterring chemical and biological threats; and in threatening great powers and rogue states. With that would come renewed emphasis on nuclear modernization and more demands for a “flexible” arsenal that can perform those missions. Follow-up treaties to New START—eliminating tactical nuclear weapons, halting the production of fissile material, or broadening the ban on intermediate-range missiles—would become an even harder sell than they are today, effectively blocking the path to “global zero.”

This crack-up may be inevitable. With booming economies, China, Russia, and India are likely to shrink the military gap with the United States no matter what happens with the super committee. Meanwhile, there are signs that the political consensus is already beginning to unravel: Unlike McCain in 2008, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has all but disavowed the goal of nuclear disarmament and wants our weapons “updated, tested, and ample”—even as liberals in Congress are reportedly pushing hard to zero out extra funds for nuclear modernization alongside cuts in conventional arms.

Still, the super committee’s decision will likely matter a great deal as to when this consensus unravels. If it manages to surprise us with an agreement and stave off the worst of conventional cuts, it may extend America’s military lead for decades and preempt a great deal of anxiety about our standing in the world. And Obama’s dream would gain a new lease on life.

Barron YoungSmith is a former online editor of The New Republic.