The hubbub over whether the lame duck edition of the 111th Congress should ratify the Obama administration’s “New START” treaty diverts attention from the agreement’s most profound problem: it does not prepare the United States for the new, and extremely volatile, nuclear realities just around the corner. The problem can’t be fixed by waiting for the 112th Congress, either.
The main objections raised by Senator Jon Kyl, courageously playing Horatio at the bridge in the face of a tidal wave of Establishment pressure to “just do it” on the treaty, are both quite cogent. He doubts the sincerity or the sufficiency of the White House’s offers to modernize the U.S. deterrent arsenal or to invest in the missile defense systems needed to protect the United States, its armed forces abroad, or its allies. Kyl months ago made plain his willingness to support the treaty if his worries were taken seriously, but the administration played stall-ball and low-ball. Kyl rightly has concluded that he can get a better offer in a new Congress.
Kyl is on the right track, but he has yet to ask the larger, more important question: what are the requirements for U.S. offensive nuclear forces in the emerging, “multipolar” nuclear world? This world is about as different from the old Cold War “balance of terror” as one can imagine, in at least three ways. The most obvious is that it will be marked by a rising number of otherwise weak states with modestly-sized nuclear forces: think North Korea and Iran. These are the kinds of “regional rogues” that the United States has, since Operation Desert Storm, dealt with at its leisure through the use of relatively small but devastatingly effective applications of conventional military power. These regimes watched successive American president’s play with Saddam Hussein¹s ambitions like a cat toying with a caught mouse. They’ve learned the obvious lesson: to deter America, get a nuke. This thought has also occurred to more and more petty dictators, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. The second-order effect will be still more proliferation, this time amongst U.S. allies and partners, beginning with those in the Middle East.
The second concern arises from the first. The combination of weak, failing, unstable governments and a global proliferation market—where laws of supply and demand are at very free-play—increases the odds that, in some not-so-distant future, that terrorist groups or other “non-state actors” might come into possession of nuclear materials if not weapons. The thought of terrorists with their hands on the most terrible means of power is no longer an unthinkable prospect. A different world indeed.
The third aspect of our nuclear future is the least considered: how will such weapons shape the great-power competitions of the 21st century? This, too, is likely to be a multi-sided game, in contrast to the bipolar nuclear disorders of the Cold War. At the minimum, there will be an important nuclear balance between India and China—something that will be of considerable interest to the United States but over which we will have lesser influence. Even in the bloodless analysis of nuclear political science, it’s inevitable that this emerging multipolarity will be more complex, and probably less stable.
What will be the value of American nuclear forces in such an environment? In truth, no one knows—but that’s exactly the point. The New START agreement confidently locks the United States to a set of constraining commitments without any serious consideration of what this new nuclear world will require. But if there is one certainty, it is that the global demand for American security guarantees will rise; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was prescient in talking about extending a deterrent umbrella over the Gulf States worried about Iran’s nukes. If there is no appropriate “nuclear backstop” to that guarantee, how credible a deterrent will it appear to be, particularly to the skittish and brittle Arab regimes of the region?
Sen. Kyl and the new conservatives in Congress should not be in a rush next year, either, to ratify the New START treaty. In addition to holding the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on missile defense and modernization of the existing nuclear infrastructure, they should take the opportunity to provoke a wider discussion and debate about the role of nuclear weapons in the all-too-foreseeable future. New START is not so much a bad deal—though it is that—as it is an irrelevant deal. And that is far more dangerous.