Right now, the Senate is entering debate on the last big issue of its lame duck session, the long-delayed ratification of the START Treaty. While the Dems have lined up behind it (they can show immense political courage on issues they don’t really care about), the GOP and the conservative establishment has been lashing out, with criticism centering on the basic idea that it would weaken the United States to voluntarily give up even a portion of its nuclear arsenal, for any reason, and that to do so would surrender a proportional amount of our global power. It’s a rational argument that extends back to the Cold War, when U.S. presidents signed away military superiority in exchange for a flowery editorial in The New York Times and…nothing. But this time around, the Dems got it right.
It wasn’t always like this. The problem with arms reductions is that on one hand they are inherently meaningless, and on the other, disastrously significant. Voluntarily scaling back a nuclear arsenal does little to contribute to world peace. If you only need a handful of nuclear weapons to destroy a country, say 10, than the world is no safer by reducing the arsenals back down to 200. You can still incinerate the enemy 50 times over and have enough spares to regularly detonate outside Las Vegas as a radiation-soaked tourist attraction for the weekend crowds.
Conversely, signing away the stockpiles granted the USSR one of its key objectives while returning no benefits to the United States. Since the Russian Revolution, the Soviet leadership was convinced that one of these days, the capitalist imperials were going to up and invade the Soviet Union for the sheer meanness of it. The Soviets made a tradition of selling out their promise of a workers’ paradise to spend exorbitantly on military technology, which barely worked, for the sole reason of keeping up with the Americans. By voluntarily curbing arms, the United States allowed the Soviets to limp along well into eight decades of missile parades and ten-hour speeches at the U.N.
The Soviet Union has been replaced with a country that is unsteadily advancing economically, while showing no interest in joining the political mainstream. Russia is that rare exception of democracy without classical liberalism, where people can ostensibly vote, yet have no objections to the heavy-handed approach of shooting Russian journalists in the pubic region…until he dies. Think about that, how many times you have to get shot in the crotch before you DIE from being shot in the crotch.
The “little father” mentality that surrounded the czar, and later the rotating echelons of Soviet leadership, has been transmitted wholesale into its new presidency with little to no objections by the Russian people themselves. Russia is a powerful country that is economically free but tightly managed, a halfway point between communist authoritarianism and the economic (and therefore military) power provided by the free market. A country like this–think China is 20 years–will have little interest in promoting and defending the values of classical liberalism, as the United States does and Europe pretends to (it’s hard to get much done with a 14-hour workweek).
Russia is extending its influence across its borders to the former Soviet satellite states and the rest of Eastern Europe to a limited degree. It is prepared to enforce this policy with force when necessary, as we saw with Georgia in 2008. And undoubtedly, the prestige and fear of the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal will play a part.
While Russia has defiantly not tolerated terrorism within its own borders, its international situation is not so clear. They regard Iran as an ally, one that provides a large supply of oil to their thirsty state, and have an incentive in protecting its regime. This is, by itself, not all that different than what the British did when they installed a government in Iran to protect their own petroleum interests, or American policy elsewhere in the Middle East, and should not be construed as cozying up to a terrorist organization for ideological reasons. They have made overtures to Venezuela for the same reason, along with the unique joy that comes from brazenly defying the Monroe Doctrine and making a friend from a self-styled enemy of the United States, in an effort to check our promotion of genuine democracy in Eastern Europe.
Geopolitics have shifted into a configuration that we cannot accurately predict today, and Russia might be threatened to do something brash to preserve its position. Giving nuclear weapons to Iran in an effort to check the nuclear weapons of Israel, is not beyond imagination. An arms race in that region would be disastrous. Given the reliable irrational politics in that region, and stable popularity of Wahabi Islam and unpopularity of Israel, the potential for these weapons to be used goes up dramatically.
Even the most remote possibility has to be taken with grave seriousness when it comes to nuclear weapons. The consequence of allowing even one of these weapons to fall into the hands of a theological dictatorship could be nothing short of apocalyptic, given the clerical elite’s aversion to rational self-interest and coziness with terrorist networks. Iran is ruled by a leader whose education is specialized almost entirely on memorizing and elaborating on the Koran, a holy text littered with references to war and sacrifice for the sake of religious purity.
The United States sacrifices nothing by giving up a few thousand nukes, as we can still rely on our significant remainder to deter and respond to any attack, and our conventional military strength to finish any other job. But we gain a significant amount of safety by getting Russia to give up hers.
Oh, and ratifying START makes us stronger militarily, too. Really.
Nuclear weapons are a force equalizer, just look at Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. His army ranks somewhere between the Eagle Scouts and a paintball team in terms of effectiveness against the United States, but he has checked America’s ability to deploy a force for all but the most serious of threats. The strange little dwarf will rule that fractured country until he is dead, and then his son will inherit it from him, all the while making brazen and stupid threats to neighbors and brutalizing his people into starvation while we stand aside and watch.Whatever his other mental ailments, Kim Jung-Il was smart enough to buy his government at least another 50 years of guaranteed existence, and all it took was one weapon which he can never use.
This will not happen to Russia, which is transitioning into the world community and starting to behave like adults. But that is no guarantee that somewhere during the 21st century their priorities may not change, and that a leadership which is largely unaccountable might be prepared to take a gambit on an unstable regime by giving them nuclear weapons in order to check a rival or preserve their influence, as they did in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It’s always the little guy, who dreams of big annihilation. Castro was in his bunker, furiously arguing with Khrushchev over the phone to just launch the damn things already. As he reminisced about it later, the result would have been enormous civilian deaths in the United States on an unprecedented scale, swiftly followed by a retaliatory strike on the USSR, the invasion of Cuba, and the end of his government. For whatever reason, Castro seemed to think this was a good deal. Russia once gave this man nuclear weapons. Something similar could happen again, now or 50 years later, to either nullify conventional U.S. military superiority, significantly check the diplomatic and military options of America and world community, bolster a faltering dictatorship, or worse–to purposefully and gleefully use them.
START narrows this possibility. It could be the first arms reduction treaty where the U.S. comes out ahead. Better to pass it now before Putin comes back in from the pool deck with his shirt on.