Any day now, President Obama is expected to unveil a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. This so-called Strategic Arms Reduction (START) follow-on treaty will be ballyhooed as an important step towards the realization of Mr. Obama's goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. As things stand now, however, that step seems unlikely to be approved by the Senate - let alone translate into an end to nuclear proliferation and the dangers associated with it.
There is no small irony that the prospects for the START follow-on treaty were made worse recently by four men who arguably have done more than any others to lend credence to the notion that a nuclear-free planet would be desirable and realizable: Former Republican secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, Bill Clinton's former Pentagon chief, Bill Perry, and the former Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn.
In recent years, this "Gang of Four" has taken repeatedly to the op.ed. pages of the Wall Street Journal to espouse the global elimination of nuclear weapons as the only way to avoid the dangers of horrific mass destruction at the hands of rogue states, terrorists or others. In so doing, these elder statesmen helped transform an idea that had theretofore been written off as the Holy Grail of, with very few exceptions, the Looney Left.
One of those exceptions, we are constantly reminded, was Ronald Reagan. There is no getting around the fact that Mr. Reagan abhorred nuclear weapons and was sorely tempted by an offer made by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986 to eliminate the two nations' nuclear arsenals. Yet, as President, the Gipper did more to modernize and, thereby, to assure the future viability of America's nuclear deterrent arguably than any of his predecessors. The U.S. deterrent today largely relies upon the thermonuclear weapons and their delivery systems developed, acquired and/or fielded during Mr. Reagan's tenure.
By contrast, Barack Obama has, to date, steadfastly refused to upgrade the nation's nuclear capabilities. He perceives the sorts of steps needed to ensure the durability and effectiveness of our deterrent as contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of his denuclearization agenda. As he put it last December at West Point: "I've made it a central pillar of my foreign policy to secure loose nuclear materials from terrorists, to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and to pursue the goal of a world without them - because every nation must understand that true security will never come from an endless race for ever-more destructive weapons; true security will come for those who reject them."
In their latest declaration in the Journal on January 19th, though, the Gang of Four made clear that they have a different view on modernization:
"... As we work to reduce nuclear weaponry and to realize the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, we recognize the necessity to maintain the safety, security and reliability of our own weapons. They need to be safe so they do not detonate unintentionally; secure so they cannot be used by an unauthorized party; and reliable so they can continue to provide the deterrent we need so long as other countries have these weapons. This is a solemn responsibility, given the extreme consequences of potential failure on any one of these counts."
Bill Perry and his friends go on to warn that, "There are potential problems ahead, as identified by the Strategic Posture Commission led by former Defense Secretaries Perry and James R. Schlesinger." They then declare that, "This commission, which submitted its report to Congress last year, calls for significant investments in a repaired and modernized nuclear weapons infrastructure and added resources for the three national laboratories."
Commendable as these cautionary notes are - especially coming as they do from erstwhile cheerleaders for denuclearization, the Gang of Four chose (presumably deliberately) to neglect the fact that the deterrent's looming problems are not just with the nuclear "infrastructure" and national weapons laboratories. The arsenal that the weapons complex and laboratories support is comprised of increasingly obsolescent arms and their delivery platforms. They were tailored to meet the strategic requirements of a very different environment (namely, the Cold War-era Soviet threat). They have long since outlived their design life and for at least 18 years none of them has been tested in an operationally realistic way (that is, with an underground nuclear detonation). A failure urgently to redress these deficiencies would translate into unilateral nuclear disarmament, something not favored by either the Strategic Posture Commission or, for that matter, Ronald Reagan.
Indeed, the Perry-Schlesinger panel noted that such "modernization is essential to the nonproliferation benefits derived from the extended deterrent." In other words, if we want to discourage allies from developing their own nuclear arsenals, we must reassure them that we are taking care of ours. That will require not just technologically problematic "service life-extension" programs for aging weapons. It will require new warheads and bombs that are as safe, reliable and effective as we can make them.
This happens also to be the stated view of forty-one United States Senators who warned President Obama in writing last month not to bring forward his START follow-on treaty without such a comprehensive - and funded - modernization program. Presumably, that view is also shared by Massachusetts' just-elected Senator, Scott Brown, as well. Without the votes of at least eight of these legislators, the new accord with Russia will be dead on arrival. Will Mr. Obama risk that outcome, and worse?