The Consequences of Bad Ideas

Advantage: Russia. Disadvantage: The United States. The Obama Way.

by Bruce S. Thornton

The New START Treaty with Russia that President Obama is eager to have the Senate ratify is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. We can start with the details of the treaty itself.

While the treaty claims to achieve nuclear parity with Russia’s arsenal, these reductions apply only to strategic nuclear weapons. Russia will maintain a 10-1 advantage in tactical weapons. Limits on delivery vehicles count US conventional weapons vehicles, a provision that doesn’t factor in this country’s greater global deterrent responsibilities that require conventional weapons. And no mention is made of Russia’s previous START treaty violations, raising the question of how compliance will be assured this time around. And these are just a few of the provisions that make the treaty a bad deal for the US.

Worse yet, the Russians have put a diplomatic gun to America’s head. Several Russian officials have made it clear in a statement from the office of the Russian president that the treaty “can operate and be viable only if the United States of America refrains from developing its missile defense capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively.”

In other words, the treaty is really about limiting our missile defense, which serves Russia’s interests since it cannot compete with America’s economic and technological advantages in new weapons development. This threat by Russia’s leaders suggests that they believed the Obama administration was so eager for an agreement that it could be taken to the diplomatic cleaners.

Yet the details of the treaty are not as significant as the bad ideas that lie behind them. These ideas reflect old utopian notions and fuzzy thinking that have become orthodoxy by dint of mantric repetition. Take Obama’s oft-stated goal of a “nuclear-free world,” one presumably this treaty will be “one step in a longer journey” toward, as the President put it. This is a progressive pipedream dangerous to indulge, since even if all the countries with nuclear arsenals agreed to eliminate them — something highly improbable, to say the least — it would be impossible to verify whether or not a nation has kept its word and destroyed its weapons, let alone discarded the know-how for making them again. Nor is it likely we could compel such rogues to keep their word, given that a starving dysfunctional state like North Korea acquired its nuclear weapons in defiance of the world community’s threats and sanctions.

Moreover, this obsession with nuclear arms is partly based on the apocalyptic glamour that has surrounded them since Hiroshima. During the Cold War, when a full-scale nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union would indeed have meant the end of civilization, this concern was understandable. But such a contingency is remote these days, and in any case won’t be prevented by reductions in nuclear capability or development by America, the one nation that the world can be confident will not use such weapons unless necessary for our survival.

More important, those obsessing over nuclear weapons forget that their existence during the Cold War prevented a conventional war that would have been devastating, and the outcome of which would have been uncertain for the existence of political freedom. Any future existential threat is more likely to be deterred if the United States maintains its ability to inflict devastation on an aggressor.

Attributing demonic powers to nuclear weapons ignores the fact that what’s important is not the type of weapons, but the people who possess them and the political system under which they live. Nuclear weapons in the democratic hands of France, England, or Israel are not a problem, for those states have governments defined by the rule of law, citizen accountability, open debate and dissent, and civilian control of the military. It is the thug-states or those with a democracy deficit that should concern us. These days the biggest problem with nuclear weapons is that they may be passed off to terrorists by a state like Iran or North Korea. That is a more serious national security threat than the possibility that someday Russia will use its nuclear arsenal against us or our allies — an option, by the way, that Russia will still have even if New START is ratified.

Other delusional assumptions lurk behind this push for a treaty. The notion that nuclear proliferation will be slowed by such agreements reveals a remarkably naïve view of state behavior, which is predicated on self-interest, not the inspiring example set by other nations. China possesses around 200 deployable strategic weapons, about one-eighth the amount at which New START would cap Russia’s and our stockpile. Given the gap between China’s arsenal and its geo-strategic ambitions, it is unlikely to subject itself to arms limits or reductions just because the United States does. Nor will Israel, Pakistan, or India rethink its nuclear deterrent capacity just because we are shortsighted enough to compromise ours. And Iran, whose regional clout will expand exponentially with the possession of nuclear weapons, has repeatedly shown that our noble ideals and intentions are a matter of indifference.

The oldest and worst idea, however, is the notion that disarmament is the road to peace, one based on the assumption that wars are a consequence of the existence of weapons, rather than being the expression of human nature and the conflicting state interests that throughout history have been adjudicated by violence. This utopian view of disarmament arose in the 19th century from the Enlightenment idea that the human race is progressing away from violence and conflict, and that there was a global “harmony of interests” making war irrational and “soft power” such as diplomacy and international treaties a better keeper of peace and order. Only the continued existence of weapons created and sold by the “merchants of death,” as John Dewey called them, retarded this evolution away from war.

The Hague Conventions, which set limits on weaponry during war, was an expression of the view that, as Tsar Nicholas II put it in 1907 at the Second Hague Convention, “the accelerating arms race” was “transforming the armed peace into a crushing burden that weighs on all nations and, if prolonged, will lead to the very cataclysm it seeks to avert.”

After World War I, this received wisdom was codified in Article 8 of the Versailles Treaty:

The Members of the League recognize that the maintenance of peace requires the reduction of national armaments to the lowest point consistent with national safety and the enforcement by common action of international obligations . . .The Members of the League agree that the manufacture by private enterprise of munitions and implements of war is open to grave objections. The Council shall advise how the evil effects attendant upon such manufacture can be prevented.

Throughout the interwar years, the dogma of disarmament repeatedly was invoked as the best way to avoid another war. In 1926, a group of international writers and intellectuals, including H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell, signed a petition demanding “some definite step toward complete disarmament and the demilitarization of the mind of civilized nations.”

Even after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the rise of militant Nazism in Germany, disarmament continued to be ritualistically invoked as the only way to stop the increasing disorder and violence throughout the world: Labor Party leader Clement Attlee said in 1935, “Our policy is not one of seeking security through rearmament, but through disarmament.” This was after Hitler contemptuously walked out of the World Disarmament Conference in 1933, which Germany no longer needed as camouflage for its decade-long program of clandestine rearmament that had begun before the ink had dried on the Versailles Treaty.

We all know the consequences of those two decades of disarmament — 50 million dead, Europe devastated, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Yet here we are, nearly a century later, still risking our security by indulging a bad idea like disarmament, however much it is disguised as “reductions” or “limits.” Treaties and agreements that compromise our ability to create the military force and weapons that American citizens judge necessary will not strengthen our security. What will make us secure are the best weapons we can create, whether conventional or nuclear, and the flexibility to develop arms adaptable to whatever new threat that may arise. In short, we need to remember the old wisdom of the Roman military theorist Vegetius: If you want peace, prepare for war.

©2010 Bruce S. Thornton

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