When major newspapers around the world trumpet headlines such as "U.S., Russia to Cut Nuclear Arms," it should be cause for excitement, even celebration. Undoubtedly most people will greet this news with a sense of relief that we are moving in the right direction. Certainly it is better to have less nuclear weapons than more of them. But before we bring out the champagne, it would be a good idea to read the fine print and examine more closely what the treaty will and will not do.
The treaty calls for reducing the size of the actively deployed US and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals from some 6,000 weapons on each side today to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the year 2012. This is approximately a two-thirds reduction in actively deployed long-range nuclear weapons, a move that is certainly positive.
The treaty, however, has serious flaws. The nuclear weapons taken off active deployment will not necessarily be destroyed. It will be up to each country to determine what to do with these weapons. Many, if not most, of them will be placed in storage, ready to be rapidly redeployed if either country decides to do so.
There is also no immediacy to moving from current levels of strategic nuclear weapons to the promised lower levels. According to the terms of the treaty, each country needs only to reduce to the agreed upon levels by the year 2012. That also happens to be the year that the treaty terminates unless extended.
The United States has been a proponent of making the nuclear reductions reversible. The major problem with this approach is that it leads the Russians to do the same, and thereby increases the likelihood that these weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists. It would be better for both countries to permanently dismantle the nuclear weapons removed from active deployment, thereby removing the risk of theft by terrorists.
The treaty deals only with strategic or long-range nuclear weapons. It does not seek to control or reduce tactical or short-range nuclear weapons. Each side still retains thousands of these weapons, and there is serious concern about the Russian arsenal’s vulnerability to theft or unauthorized use. The US Nuclear Posture Review, made partially public in January 2002, called for the development of so-called "bunker buster" nuclear weapons that would be far more likely to actually be used than the larger long-range nuclear weapons.
As we evaluate this treaty, we should remember that even at the lowest level of 1,700 strategic nuclear weapons on each side, there will still be a sufficient number to destroy more than 3,000 cities. The use of far fewer nuclear weapons than this would put an end to civilization as we know it.
President Bush claims, "This treaty will liquidate the legacy of the Cold War." This remains to be seen. By designing a treaty that will hold so many nuclear weapons in reserve and retain so many on active "hair-trigger" alert, the two sides are not exactly demonstrating a level of trust commensurate with their current friendly relations.
When the treaty is examined closely, it has more the feel of a public relations effort than a solid step toward reducing nuclear dangers and fulfilling the long-standing promises of the two countries to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, even if this treaty is ratified and enters into force, we will remain in the danger zone that nuclear weapons pose to humanity and all life.
We still need an agreement that provides for deeper, more comprehensive and irreversible cuts with a far greater sense of urgency. Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin need to return to the negotiating table.