The Bulletin Online

By Pavel Podvig | 3 June 2008

Skepticism about arms control agreements has been a prominent Bush administration position. As such, its arms control achievements are few and far between. But in its waning days, the administration has finally agreed with the long-standing Russian position that any new arms control agreement should be "legally binding." John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, also recently announced in a major speech on nuclear issues that he would seek a new arms control agreement with Russia. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, McCain's Democratic counterparts, have long been disarmament supporters, so most likely the United States will move quickly to negotiate a new arms control treaty with Russia when the next president is sworn into office in January 2009.

This is certainly a welcome change. The Bush administration's stubbornness in avoiding binding arms control commitments is a major reason for the sorry state of nuclear disarmament today. According to the START data exchange, since 2000--the year before President George W. Bush took office--the United States has reduced the number of its nuclear warheads from 7,800 to 5,900; during the same time period, Russia has reduced its nuclear warheads from 6,500 to 4,200. And although the number of warheads in the U.S. and Russian active arsenals is somewhat smaller, Washington and Moscow can hardly be proud of this record.

They both claim that their goal is to bring their nuclear forces to the lowest level consistent with national security requirements. But in reality, it seems to be the reverse--the requirements are drawn to correspond to whatever number of nuclear warheads the countries happen to have at the moment.

Few people doubt that the United States and Russia need to reduce their nuclear arsenals to much lower numbers. But achieving a new, legally binding agreement on strategic nuclear weapons will prove difficult, as negotiations could easily get bogged down in disputes about definitions and scope or produce a diluted agreement that would have no practical implications whatsoever.

When people talk about returning to negotiations, they're hoping that Washington and Moscow can find a middle ground from which the countries can work out a meaningful agreement that would commit them to significant reductions in their strategic arsenals. But that's easier said than done. Russia and the United States already disagree on what kind of warheads the new treaty should cover. The U.S. position, which is unlikely to change with a new administration--Democratic or Republican, is that the new treaty should limit only deployed nuclear warheads. In other words, bombers or ballistic missiles converted to non-nuclear missions wouldn't be counted against the treaty ceiling despite the fact that they're still capable of carrying a nuclear payload. Russia strongly objects to this type of change in counting rules, mostly because it wants to limit non-nuclear capabilities as well. It's likely that these positions will be impossible to reconcile.

It would be unfortunate if the United States and Russia allow such disputes over definitions to upset the disarmament process. Not that the definitions aren't important--quite the contrary. But instead of trying to devise a completely new arms control agreement, Moscow and Washington should just extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), simply tweaking it a bit by adding a lower ceiling and relaxing some of the verification rules. In terms of fundamentals, a new agreement wouldn't be better than START anyway.

The downside to keeping START's rules and definitions, which were agreed upon at the height of the Cold War to satisfy the most cautious military planners, is that a quick, dramatic move to lower numbers would be nearly impossible. This would result in Washington and Moscow having thousands of nuclear weapons on their books for the foreseeable future--according to START, missiles and bombers are counted as nuclear delivery systems until they're verifiably eliminated. On the surface, this isn't a good thing. But conversely, if Washington and Moscow are serious about reducing the amount of their nuclear weapons, they should prove it by eliminating these weapons and the systems that deliver such weapons altogether, not by tinkering with definitions and cooking the books.