A New Era of Arms Control?
Last week the leaders of the United States and Russia announced the first major nuclear arms control agreement since the early 1990s. When signed in April, the new treaty will reduce American and Russian nuclear arsenals by about twenty-five percent, and delivery vehicles by about fifty percent. By the end of the decade, both sides will have nuclear arsenals of about 1,500 warheads — less than 20 percent of the gargantuan stockpiles the superpowers maintained during the height of the Cold War.
These nuclear arsenals are still much larger than justifiable on strategic grounds, but they are now on a sliding scale toward what we might call more “minimalist” postures. With this agreement, the United States and Russia have shown that they are committed to de-emphasizing these weapons and making their own adjustments to a less nuclear world. At a time when so many other countries are considering the construction of their own nuclear arsenals (Iran, Syria, and even Japan), this “minimalist” nuclear commitment is crucial. It lends credibility to non-proliferation efforts and it shows that the larger nuclear states are acting on their own claims. The recent agreement is vital in make nuclear weapons less plentiful around the globe.
The historical scholarship on arms control agreements shows that they always have significance beyond the weapons systems under negotiation. Arms control agreements build productive political relationships, they nurture trust, and they encourage broader peace-making. More than that, arms control agreements build new international norms for behavior. During the Cold War, arms control contributed to a powerful and enduring nuclear taboo that discouraged the use of these horrible weapons. That is the most astounding characteristic of military affairs during the Cold War. The new U.S.-Russian treaty promises to extend this nuclear taboo into a troubled, and potentially more dangerous, post-Cold War world.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.