Nuclear diplomacy

American and Russian negotiators have struggled for months to craft a new bilateral treaty on strategic nuclear weapons. In the Cold War era, such negotiations could take years, but why is there a problem now?

In the bad old days, the challenge was to work out the details of a strategic relationship that was more or less balanced. Today, the heart of the problem is the absence of symmetry between the two countries, not only in their size and power, but in the role nuclear weapons play in their respective security concepts and status in the world.

If, by magic, all nuclear weapons were to disappear from the earth tomorrow, the United States would greatly benefit. Not only would no foreign power be able to inflict major damage on the American homeland, Washington would enjoy almost global supremacy in non-nuclear military capabilities, reinforced by its extensive system of alliances.

In contrast, a world without nuclear weapons would constitute a severe blow to Russia’s security and, even more, to its sense of self-worth. Russia is a great power today by virtue of its geography, its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and oil and gas. The hydrocarbons constitute Moscow’s instrument of parity with Europe and nuclear weapons with the United States. Without the nuclear arsenal, however, Russia’s vast geography would become a major liability, especially with China. Neither Russia’s economy nor its declining population could sustain a conventional military able to defend such an enormous perimeter against all threats.

Without a major nuclear arsenal, Russia’s global role would be less like India or China and more like Brazil or Indonesia, an intolerable decline from its present status for those who rule in Moscow. Thus, Russian negotiators are near the lowest number of nuclear weapons their country must maintain, not only in the strategic category, but also in so-called tactical weapons, which Moscow employs for deterrence within Eurasia. In addition, Russia is struggling with increasing costs and difficulties in deploying new generations of strategic delivery systems, especially at sea.

A related challenge for the negotiations is that Moscow perceives American advances in military technologies as creating a capacity for a disarming first strike on Russia. This notion appears absurd in Washington, but prominent Russian strategists see a genuine threat in the growing American combination of long-range nuclear missiles, high-tech precision-guided non-nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missile programs. This fear has deep roots, as revealed in David Hoffman’s new book, “The Dead Hand,” which documents the terrifying Soviet-era obsession with a decapitating American first strike.

In fact, if by magic all of Russia’s nuclear weapons were to disappear tomorrow but America’s remained, the United States would not then use its nuclear monopoly either to attack or threaten Russia. (That Moscow would believe itself threatened is probably inevitable.) Perhaps it is difficult for Russia’s leadership to accept this reality. Some might rather lie awake in fear of an American attack that will never come than acknowledge that Russia no longer dominates Washington’s priorities.

The U.S. administration faces a huge problem in obtaining Senate ratification for a new treaty, and not just because of domestic partisan politics in an election year. During the Cold War, many senators and congressmen were engaged with Russia. Certainly, they were not Russophiles, but they devoted serious time and effort to Russian issues. Not any more. Capitol Hill scarcely thinks about Russia at all nowadays and, when it does, often it is only to score cheap shots on issues ranging from chicken parts to the Caucasus.

This will be Obama’s first foreign treaty ratification effort, requiring a vote of two-thirds in the Senate. Members of both parties will ask why the United States needs a new treaty at all, when Russia’s nuclear arsenal is in long-term decline due to age and financial constraints. Some will doubtless try to draw “linkage” between ratification and Russian “good behavior” with its neighbors. Others may question the value of reciprocal arms limits, of mutual verification and monitoring regimes, and of the importance of a treaty for the remaining global system of nuclear non-proliferation. Such arguments would be short-sighted, shallow and divorced from the national interest, but they will need to be answered persuasively.

Thus, the current challenge for American diplomacy is to produce a treaty that responds more to Russia’s political and psychological requirements than to its real security needs, and then to persuade American senators that such an effort is in the interest of the United States. By comparison, the job of Cold War-era negotiators was simple.

E. Wayne Merry is a former U.S. State Department and Pentagon official.

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