Earlier this month, reports surfaced that President Obama is planning to approve significant reductions to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, the president reiterated his commitment to working with Russia on nuclear reductions, and to preventing the spread of “the world’s most dangerous weapons.”
At a time when national security seems more about nefarious computer viruses and high-tech drones, and less about sitting in a stuffy room negotiating arms treaties with Russians, nuclear weapons may seem an odd issue for the president to prioritize. But it’s precisely because nuclear weapons are so outdated that the president is right to pursue reductions in our arsenal.
First, some history. The administration’s move doesn’t come out of nowhere. To the contrary, every president since Ronald Reagan has reduced the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Reagan came to office in 1981 enthusiastic about nuclear buildup, but soon became fearful of the dangers of mutually assured destruction, at one point telling his secretary of state, “Why wait until the end of the century for a world free of nuclear weapons?”
In 1991, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, President George H.W. Bush announced a unilateral reduction in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which encouraged Russian President Gorbachev to do the same a week later. During the first Bush presidency, the U.S. nuclear stockpile was reduced by 50%. The younger Bush followed suit, also presiding over a 50% reduction between 2001 and 2009.
It may be surprising given congressional Republicans’ fiery opposition to the news of Obama’s plan, but historically, Republican presidents have been more active on nuclear reductions than Democratic ones.
But Obama has also invested considerable political capital in the goal of nuclear reductions. In April 2009, in Prague’s Hradcany Square, the president declared that “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War,” and pledged to work with Russia to reduce nuclear stockpiles. Since then, U.S. officials have been working to evaluate what’s known as the nuclear posture, or the overall role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. Both the White House and the Pentagon have concluded that nuclear weapons are increasingly less relevant to modern-day security threats, and that we can reduce the size of our arsenal without compromising our safety.
So why bother? For some, the end of the Cold War meant that we could stop thinking about nuclear weapons. We could let them sit in their silos and just be grateful that we had avoided the ultimate catastrophe.
In fact, however, the threat of that catastrophe still lingers. As long as the United States and Russia maintain thousands of weapons pointed at each other, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice, a miscommunication or computer glitch is all it takes for the unthinkable to happen. Most of us know about how close we came to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. But far less well known are the number of close calls we’ve had over the years — for no reason other than human fallibility, combined with the frightening destructive power of nuclear weapons.
That’s why the administration favors reductions in tandem with Russia, to gradually bring both nations down from the high-stakes Cold War posture that persists, two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed. Furthermore, evolving technologies are making it easier every day to verify that countries are complying with their nuclear agreements.
Another compelling reason for nuclear reductions is the very real threat of fissile material falling into the hands of terrorists. The threat of nuclear terrorism has, in many ways, replaced the traditional arms race as the primary nuclear danger in the 21st century. During the Cold War, it could be argued that large nuclear arsenals kept the world safer simply through their presence, by deterring an attack. But now, paradoxically, those same arsenals actually pose a danger, because if nuclear material falls into the wrong hands, an already worrisome terrorist threat will become that much worse.
And finally, there’s the question of the U.S. acting as a leader on global nonproliferation. Scholars who study the issue have begun to uncover evidence that U.S. moves toward disarmament do, in fact, have some measure of influence on other countries’ attitudes toward proliferation. This was certainly the case in the early 1990s with Russia, and there’s reason to hope that a changed U.S. posture will signify to smaller nations our commitment to a world of reduced nuclear dangers.
It remains to be seen whether the president will be able to secure the necessary agreement for the proposed reductions. If he is, there’s little doubt that he will have taken one more key step towards eliminating the risks of weapons of mass destruction. As second-term legacies go, that seems like a worthy one.