Letting Go of Our Nukes

President Obama recently called on Russia to join with the United States in negotiating a mutual reduction in strategic nuclear warheads that would leave each country with slightly more than 1,000. The number would be up to one-third less than what both countries agreed to deploy in the New Start treaty, reached in the president’s first term.

His speech was met with skepticism in both Congress and the Kremlin, but not for the right reasons. Critics and doubters in both countries argued that there were substantial political roadblocks to achieving this goal. In the Kremlin, America’s Europe-based missile defense system, which Russia has fiercely opposed, seems to be a stumbling block. In Congress there is broad resistance to the idea of Mr. Obama’s negotiating arms reductions without approval from the Senate.

But politics aside, several fundamental questions about the president’s speech remain: Why have we waited this long for such a proposal? Why are we stopping there? And, perhaps most important, why doesn’t the United States simply make the reduction on its own? Why do we need to negotiate with Russia?

It is hard to seriously suggest that from a national-security standpoint, 1,000 warheads are not enough to protect the United States. Such an arsenal is literally overkill, sufficient to destroy every major population center on the planet outside of our borders.

We would lose no real strategic security by such a reduction. The New Start treaty called for cuts in the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550. But even these levels are an anachronism, left over from the cold war. The president’s proposed level of 1,000 warheads would still provide an equivalent level of mutually assured destruction even against Russia, were it still a cold war aggressor. In the current climate, when more likely possible aggressors have fewer than 10 percent of this level, 1,000 weapons is more than adequate.

If we wish to convince countries like Iran that the development of nuclear weapons is not in their best interest, we need to demonstrate that maintaining or enhancing our own arsenal is not in our interest.

This is particularly important now, not just to dissuade nations like Iran from building nuclear arsenals, and others, like North Korea, from adding to theirs, but also to stem what may be a much more worrisome and unstable situation in Pakistan and India. With each country holding estimated stockpiles of around 100 weapons, and as historic tensions continue to flare between the two, the possibility of a nuclear conflagration there remains very real.

The effects of even a limited nuclear war between Pakistan and India would not be confined to that region. Scientific studies by the physicists Alan Robock of Rutgers University and Owen B. Toon of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and their colleagues found that a nuclear war in South Asia involving the detonation of even 100 Hiroshima-size weapons, far smaller than those in their arsenals, could kill as many as 20 million people from the blasts and resulting fires and radiation, and generate so much smoke that it would block 7 to 10 percent of the sunlight reaching the earth for at least a decade.

Financial reasons are also an argument for a unilateral reduction. Maintaining our nuclear stockpile at its current level is expensive, and infrastructure upgrades at our weapons laboratories and storage facilities to maintain these weapons would significantly strain an already bloated defense budget.

Mr. Obama can also take other steps to increase our nuclear security.

It may surprise people, for example, that the United States still has not explicitly renounced a policy of possible first use of nuclear weapons. If we truly believe that no country should initiate a nuclear attack, why don’t we take a lead by making this our policy? It does not constrain us from responding to any attack.

In this regard, there are 1,800 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia still on “high alert” that can be launched within 10 to 15 minutes of a perceived threat, according to an estimate by Hans M. Kristensen and Matthew McKinzie in June’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

This outdated remnant of the cold war, designed to ensure the retaliatory capability of either country in the event of a perceived massive first strike, vastly increases the likelihood of an accidental launch of nuclear weapons. We should cancel this high alert. It is unnecessary now, not only because a massive first strike is no longer likely, but also because warheads on submarines are impervious to a possible first strike.

If the president wants to embark on negotiations with Congress on nuclear weapons, he should push the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the United States signed in 1996 but which the Senate declined to approve. Mr. Obama pledged in 2009 to seek Senate ratification “immediately and aggressively.” Until the Senate follows through on the treaty, as so many other nuclear nations have, we send a signal that we see strategic value in modernizing and testing nuclear weapons. That is the wrong message to send to the world.

Much of our thinking about nuclear weapons is a hangover from a different era. One can applaud Mr. Obama for raising the possibility of reducing our arsenal, but to address the global threat of nuclear weapons we need to accept that much about war, peace and global security changed after Hiroshima and changed again in the last few decades with the end of the cold war. It is high time our thinking changed as well.

Lawrence M. Krauss is a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University and the author, most recently, of A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing.

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