Much is at stake for President Obama in the lame duck session. New START, an offensive arms control treaty with the Russian Federation, is capturing the stage as the most important foreign policy issue before the new Congress is sworn into the office in January. However, concerns with New START are real and transcend the accusations that Republicans seek to obstruct the vote in the lame duck for political reasons.
It is unclear how the U.S. could get into an arms race given the obsolete state of U.S. nuclear infrastructure. Furthermore, practical experience runs contrary to the notion that U.S. nuclear disarmament is the example of the leadership that can help rid the world of nuclear weapons.
To test the underlying hypothesis of the Administration’s arms control strategy, The Heritage Foundation conducted a nuclear gaming exercise. During the Cold War, such games were primarily between two sides, reflecting the realities of a then largely bipolar world. Today, however, we face a world in which nuclear weapons are sought by several nations, including states that could smuggle them to others or cause others to acquire them in a classic security dilemma scenario.
The results of the gaming exercises are clear. Arms control treaties should be negotiated from a position of strength. After all, Ronald Reagan’s “Peace Through Strength” maxim brought about the end of the Cold War. This enduring principle suggests an alternative path to New START. Pursuing nuclear disarmament in a proliferated world without employing missile defense and maintaining credible nuclear deterrence increases instability, which can lead to nuclear war. There are more than 30 countries with ballistic missile capabilities all over the world. The threat of missiles launched from Iran, North Korea, or coalitions of hostile parties grows, as does the need for more robust defenses—particularly when no matter where on earth a missile is launched from, it would take 33 minutes or less to hit the U.S. target it was programmed to destroy.
New START would fail to protect the U.S. and its allies from attack, to provide verification of existing programs, and to prevent nuclear proliferation. Pursuing an arms control strategy of “protect and defend”—in other words, fielding missile defenses and maintaining a modernized, credible nuclear deterrent—appears to be the best option for pursuing arms control and nonproliferation policy while limiting the potential for conflict.
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