Obama Calls for Deeper Nuclear Cuts

Tom Z. Collina

President Barack Obama used his Feb. 12 State of the Union address in part to reiterate his administration’s interest in achieving further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, but it is unclear what form an agreement might take—a formal treaty or an informal understanding.

In his address, Obama said the United States would “engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals.” According to accounts published before the speech by the Center for Public Integrity on Feb. 8 and The New York Times on Feb. 10, an internal administration review has determined that the number of U.S. deployed strategic, or long-range, warheads could drop to 1,000 to 1,100 in the years ahead.

Currently, the United States is deploying about 1,700 strategic nuclear warheads, while Russia is deploying approximately 1,500, according to the U.S. State Department. The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia sets a limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on each side by 2018.

In addition to further cuts to deployed strategic warheads, the administration is expected to pursue discussions with Russia on measures that would address nonstrategic, or tactical, warheads, along with warheads in storage. Obama believes the United States can make significant reductions “and save a lot of money, without compromising American security,” an administration official told The New York Times.

Obama’s remarks come as the Defense Department faces significant budget cuts from the congressionally mandated sequestration process established in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which could complicate Pentagon plans to buy new, multibillion-dollar submarine, bomber, and missile delivery systems for nuclear weapons.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters Feb. 14 that his government was ready to consider new proposals but would also take into account U.S.-NATO plans for ballistic missile defense in Europe. (See ACT, January/February 2013.) Russian officials have said they are concerned that the final phase of the U.S.-NATO missile interceptor plan could undermine Russia’s strategic deterrent and are not willing to consider additional arsenal reductions until these concerns are addressed.

Obama’s Choices for National Security Posts

Many of the top administration officials dealing with national security issues in President Barack Obama’s second term will be new to their positions. The backgrounds of the new officeholders and nominees are summarized below, with an emphasis on their experience in and views on arms control issues.

Secretary of State

Kerry served as a Democratic U.S. senator from Massachusetts from 1985 to 2013, spending 25 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the past four years as the committee’s chairman. He was an outspoken proponent of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and has supported ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Secretary of Defense

Hagel was a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska from 1997 to 2009, serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence. He serves on the advisory board of the organization Global Zero and endorsed a 2012 Global Zero report that proposed reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to a total of 900 weapons. Hagel is a Vietnam War veteran who, during his confirmation hearing, advocated restraint in the use of force in resolving international disputes.

CIA Director (nominated)

Brennan currently is assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. From 1980 to 2005, he worked at the CIA, serving as deputy executive director from 2001 to 2003. Brennan has said he supports diplomatic engagement to resolve U.S. and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

White House Chief of Staff

McDonough has served as deputy national security adviser and National Security Council chief of staff. Prior to those appointments, he was a foreign policy adviser to Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.—ERIC

Policy Review

The administration has reportedly concluded the internal policy review that supports further reductions in nuclear weapons, but Obama has not formally approved it. Known as the Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study, the review was expected to be finalized last summer, but has been delayed. (See ACT, June 2011.) A spokeswoman for the National Security Council said via e-mail Feb. 16 that no decisions have been made on the specific timing of any announcement about the results of the review.

As part of an initial round of talks with Russia, Vice President Joe Biden met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Munich on Feb. 2, and in a Feb. 4 appearance on PBS’s Charlie Rose, White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon said he planned to hold additional talks in Moscow in the next month. Donilon said Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009 committed the United States “to lower this world`s reliance on nuclear weapons” and that further reductions with Russia were “part of that agenda.”

The working-level talks are being led by Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, who said in her prepared text for a Feb. 21 speech at a nuclear policy conference in Arlington, Va., that she was already engaged in dialogue with her Russian counterpart and that she hoped the talks would lead to “greater reciprocal transparency and negotiation of further nuclear weapons reductions.”

Some Senate Republicans already are voicing opposition to Obama’s plans. Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and James Inhofe (Okla.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, wrote in the Feb. 26 Wall Street Journal that “no arms-control treaty is likely even to get a vote in the Senate” until the U.S. has a modern nuclear infrastructure “capable of responding to any future challenges to the country’s strategic interests.” They were referring to promises the administration made during the New START debate to seek more than $200 billion over 10 years for the National Nuclear Security Administration weapons production complex and Defense Department nuclear weapons delivery systems. (See ACT, March 2011.)

Treaty or Understanding?

Given the potential Senate opposition to further cuts, the administration could decide to pursue a less formal approach rather than negotiate a treaty with Russia that would require Senate approval. Last November, the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board issued a report recommending that Russia and the United States seek additional reductions on the basis of a mutual understanding rather than a formal treaty. Such an understanding “can be quicker and less politically costly, relative to treaties with adversarial negotiations and difficult ratification processes,” the board wrote.

Informal, even unilateral, approaches to U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions are not without precedent. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev mutually cut significant numbers of tactical nuclear weapons without a formal treaty. Under their reciprocal Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, the United States and Russia are believed to have reduced their deployed short-range stockpiles by thousands of warheads. Bush asked for and got Russian reciprocity, but did not make it a condition for the U.S. cuts.

Similarly, President George W. Bush was prepared to make unilateral reductions to the deployed U.S. strategic arsenal in 2001, saying “we’ll move by ourselves on offensive weapons.” (See ACT, December 2001.) Secretary of State Colin Powell ultimately persuaded Bush to codify reductions in a treaty with Russia. The two countries subsequently negotiated and brought into force the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty.

Corker and Inhofe, however, were critical of unilateral steps. They wrote in the Journal that “a presidential attempt to circumvent Congress by pursuing reductions unilaterally would be counter to the advice of the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and would be met with stiff resistance on Capitol Hill.”

Speaking on a Feb. 22 panel at the Arlington conference, Rob Soofer, a Republican staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that if Obama pursued unilateral cuts, Congress would “try to seek remedies.” Such a move by the administration “could possibly imperil the rest of the president’s arms control agenda,” or even parts of his larger foreign policy agenda that depend on Senate approval of treaties, he said.