The nuclear arsenals of Russia and other countries still hold thousands… (Nancy Ohanian / Tribune…)
The presidential campaign has focused primarily on the economy and domestic issues, with foreign policy receiving relatively little attention — especially if it doesn't involve the tumultuous Middle East.
One foreign policy issue that shouldn't be ignored is arms control. The president in 2013 — whether it's Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — will have an opportunity to use arms control to make the United States and the world safer.
With the New START arms deal now in force, the strategic nuclear balance between the U.S. and Russia is stable. But we shouldn't settle for that. The nuclear arsenals of Russia and other countries still hold thousands of weapons that could be turned against us or our allies. And, over the last 15 years, the number of nuclear-armed states has increased by three, with Iran perhaps on the verge.
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There are three important things the next president could do to reduce the nuclear threat.
First, he should push for a new arms control agreement with Moscow that would further reduce the number of Russian strategic nuclear warheads capable of striking the United States. A new agreement could also cut the sizable numerical advantage that Russia holds in nonstrategic — or tactical — nuclear weapons. These more portable weapons pose a special concern to our allies in Europe and Asia. An agreement should also focus on methods for monitoring warheads in storage. That could help with future rounds of arms control with other nuclear powers and reduce the risk of loose nukes getting into the wrong hands.
A second focus of the president in the next few years will be the necessary task of deciding whether and how to recapitalize the strategic triad — the ballistic missile submarines, strategic missiles and bombers that make up U.S. strategic forces. New ballistic missile submarines, for example, would cost in the neighborhood of $6 billion to $7 billion each, and that doesn't include the cost of the missiles they would carry. The overall annual nuclear budget is somewhere between $20 billion and $40 billion, depending on how you count. Arms control, by reducing the number of new strategic weapon systems the United States has to build, could save money, which could then fund things that the military is far more likely to need — or it could be put to reducing the deficit.
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Third, as the U.S. continues to reduce its nuclear arsenal, the ability of American diplomacy to raise the bar against nuclear proliferation will be bolstered. We will have set an example to the world that giving up nuclear weapons doesn't mean sacrificing security. That probably won't affect decision-making in countries such as North Korea or Iran, but it will make it easier to enlist other countries to apply pressure and sanctions against those countries or against any other state that was to consider acquiring nuclear weapons. The general sense that Washington and Moscow are reducing their arsenals is crucial diplomatically for achieving this goal.
Advancing these three goals should start with seeking a new negotiation with Russia aimed at reducing each side's nuclear arsenal to between 2,000 to 2,500 total nuclear warheads — strategic and nonstrategic. That would result in a significant reduction, but would still leave the United States and Russia each with nuclear forces an order of magnitude larger than any other country.
The president in 2013 should also pursue a cooperative NATO-Russia missile defense arrangement. This would be something short of a binding treaty, but would still be specific enough to allow for a better defense of Europe against a ballistic missile attack and for eliminating the missile defense issue as an impediment to cooperation on further nuclear reductions. Of course, Russia might balk at such agreements. But it, too, has financial incentives to reduce offensive arms as well as strategic incentives to have clarity about U.S. missile defenses.
Finally, the president in 2013 should gauge the political feasibility of Senate approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which 157 nations have already ratified. If a two-thirds vote seems possible, the president should push hard for it. The U.S. stockpile stewardship program has demonstrated that our nuclear arsenal can remain safe and reliable without testing. This was reaffirmed by a recent National Academy of Sciences study. A worldwide ban on testing would pose a huge obstacle to states that want to join the nuclear ranks or to nuclear powers trying to perfect more advanced weapons.
Arms control will provide the president in 2013 with an important opportunity. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis this month, the United States and Russia thankfully do not stand at another nuclear brink, but they do still have a very considerable interest in seizing this opportunity.
Steven Pifer and Michael O'Hanlon are senior fellows at the Brookings Institution and authors of "The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms." Pifer was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and an arms control official at the U.S. State Department; O'Hanlon previously worked on nuclear weapons issues at the Congressional Budget Office.