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Intern, Fall 2016
December 16, 2016
Presidents Need Flexibility on Nuclear Arms Reductions

Volume 4, Issue 8, July 26, 2013

President Obama announced on June 19 in Berlin that a new review of U.S. nuclear deterrence requirements found 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" below the limits established by the 2010 New START Treaty. "And," the President added, "I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures."

This is good news. As part of a long bipartisan tradition, further reductions to U.S. and Russian nuclear forces would be a welcome step toward making the United States safer, cutting the Russian arsenal, and redirecting U.S. defense dollars to higher priority needs.

It was President Ronald Reagan who, in 1986, shifted U.S. policy away from ever-higher nuclear stockpiles--which peaked at about 30,000 nuclear warheads--and started down the path of reductions that continues today. U.S. and Russian arsenals have now been reduced by more than two-thirds. U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all contributed to reducing the nuclear threat.

This impressive progress was made through a combination of formal agreements and informal understandings, as the situation required, some requiring congressional approval, some not. To get the results we want and need, such presidential flexibility on nuclear arms reductions must be preserved.

Congress Out of Step
But some Republicans in Congress are seeking to take this flexibility--which previous Republican Presidents enjoyed--away from President Obama. They have responded to the Berlin speech by demanding a firm commitment from the White House to seek Senate approval for any new agreement, while others accused the administration of pursuing "unilateral disarmament" and are seeking to block funding for any further nuclear reductions, even under New START.

For example, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Service Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, introduced an amendment approved by the full House this week that would block funding for implementation of New START. He claims the treaty is "tearing down our nuclear deterrent" and that "the president must not be allowed to unilaterally weaken our defenses."

In fact, under New START the United States will keep over 1,550 nuclear warheads, and Russia is reducing faster than we are. Constraints on New START implementation would infringe on the Pentagon's flexibility to implement the treaty and could lead the U.S. to miss the treaty's 2018 implementation deadline, prompting Russia to rethink its own commitment to the treaty and build up its forces. Walking away from current efforts to reduce Russian nuclear stockpiles would be counterproductive.

The House also approved an amendment by Reps. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Rogers to prohibit funding for any nuclear weapons reductions that occur outside a legally-binding treaty or a congressional executive agreement, even though past Presidents have pursued nuclear arms reductions with and without formal agreements.

Congress deserves to be consulted, but it should not put unnecessary roadblocks in the way of more cost-effective and appropriately-sized U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, whether that is through existing treaties or new reductions.

Reality Check
There is nothing "unilateral" about the President's approach. President Obama made it very clear that he intends to seek "negotiated" cuts with Russia. In the report to Congress explaining the latest revisions to U.S. nuclear weapons employment guidance, the Pentagon notes that even though "Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries," the President and the Defense Department still "place importance on Russia joining us as we move to lower levels of nuclear weapons."

The President's stated goal is to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear forces by up to one-third below the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. This is a very modest proposal and hardly a rush to global zero. Even at 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia would still maintain over 80% of the globe's nuclear weapons. And, as an Anniston [Ala.] Star editorial from July 25 notes, "even with proposed reductions we still have the capability to reduce enemy cities to rubble within a few hours."

In an attempt to cast doubt on further negotiated nuclear reductions with Russia, some congressional Republicans also claim that Moscow is not complying with the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. However, recent Pentagon and State Department reports find no evidence of Russian noncompliance with the INF Treaty.

Treaty or Informal Understanding?
The more serious concern, as recently expressed by 24 Republican senators in a June 19 letter to the White House, is whether or not the administration will produce a treaty "subject to the advice and consent of the Senate."

In the past, the United States has often reduced its nuclear forces through formal bilateral treaties (INF, START I, SORT, New START) and parallel, reciprocal measures.

The primary example of the latter is President George H.W. Bush's bold Presidential Nuclear Initiative in 1991 to remove thousands of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from forward deployment as the Soviet Union began to break up. Days later, Moscow reciprocated, reducing the risk that these weapons would fall into the wrong hands. No formal treaty was ever negotiated or signed, nor did the administration seek the approval of Congress.

Even in the case of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, or the "Moscow Treaty"), it is worth recalling that President George W. Bush initially set out to reduce U.S. forces without a formal agreement. As he said in 2001: "We don't need an arms control agreement to convince us to reduce our nuclear weapons down substantially, and I'm going to do it."

In their June 19 letter, the 24 Senate Republicans point out that in 2002 then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and then-Ranking Member Jesse Helms sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell stating that: "With the exception of the SALT I agreement, every significant arms control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted pursuant to the Treaty Clause of the Constitution ...we see no reason whatsoever to alter this practice."

President Bush ultimately agreed to negotiate and submit the SORT Treaty for Senate advice and consent in part because Russia wanted a treaty, even if it was a very simple one. Had Russia not wanted a formal agreement, Bush would likely have reduced U.S. nuclear weapons unilaterally, as his father did before him.

In their letter to the White House the 24 Senators also note that the resolution of ratification for New START states that "further arms reduction agreements obligating the United States to reduce or limit the Armed Forces or armaments of the United States in any military significant manner may be made only pursuant to the treaty-making power of the President..." (emphasis added).

This does not, however, rule out the option of mutual nuclear reductions in the absence of a formal agreement. First, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have already determined that one-third of the U.S. strategic nuclear warheads now deployed are in excess of military requirements. Thus, such a reduction would not have a significant impact on U.S. security.

Second, an informal U.S.-Russian understanding that each side would reduce its nuclear forces would not be legally binding and is therefore not an obligation subject to congressional approval.

What Matters Is the Result
The bottom line is that the process of reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals is complex and Congress should be careful not to try to restrict the President's options to achieve results that are in the best interests of the nation, which is to reduce excess U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals in a stable and verifiable way. Treaties may be the best way, but they are not the only way.

As the State Department's International Security Advisory Board's Nov. 27, 2012 report suggests, Russia and the United States could 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.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell recently said that, "we can reduce nuclear weapons without having a negotiation."

Verifiable, reciprocal cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles will make every American safer by reducing the nuclear firepower that can be delivered within minutes across the globe, while allowing resources to be devoted to more pressing security needs. Further reductions would also improve the international consensus to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and enhance cooperation to address the threats from North Korea and Iran, and put pressure on other states--including China--to join in the reduction process.

Significant budget savings can also be achieved if President Obama eliminates the current "requirements" for Cold War-sized nuclear forces. An assessment by the Arms Control Association identifies about $40 billion in taxpayer savings over the next decade if the United States right-sizes its nuclear force to about 1,000 strategic deployed nuclear warheads.

For its part, Russia will be hard pressed to maintain 1,550 strategic warheads unless it continues its own expensive modernization of its aging nuclear delivery systems. Rather than induce Russia to build up, it is in the security and financial interests of both countries to eliminate their excess strategic nuclear forces.

The existing New START Treaty already provides a solid framework for verification and monitoring through intrusive inspection and data exchanges. Deeper, mutual reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons can be achieved through reciprocal actions made on the basis of the best national interests of each country.

As George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn wrote in March: "A global effort is needed to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, prevent their spread, and ultimately end them as a threat to the world. It will take leadership, creative approaches and thoughtful understanding of the perils of inaction."

The White House needs flexibility to lead and be creative--a one-size-fits-all approach will not cut it. We must not let the process and politics get in the way of the substance: reducing nuclear dangers and increasing U.S. security.--TOM Z. COLLINA


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today