The Blog

Arms Control

The Cold War was won at Reykjavik. The Senate's defeat of the test ban treaty is Reykjavik II.

11:00 PM, Oct 31, 1999 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



Zbigniew Brzezinski is not alone in his judgment that the Cold War was won in 1986 at Reykjavik, though the fact that Brzezinski was President Carter's national security adviser shows that this is no partisan judgment. At Reykjavik, Ronald Reagan was offered the most sweeping arms control proposal in history. And he would have accepted it -- had Mikhail Gorbachev not insisted that the price was American surrender of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan walked out, stunning not just Gorbachev, but the entire American foreign policy establishment.


The importance of Reykjavik to winning the Cold War was that it kept American missile defense alive and made Gorbachev understand that nothing would stand in its way. The United States under Reagan was prepared to press its massive technological and economic advantage over the Soviet Union to achieve strategic superiority. Failing that, the United States would simply bleed the Soviets dry in any strategic competition. Reykjavik made clear to the Soviets the fate of their 70-year experiment of confrontation and military-technological competition with the West. They had long known that they were losing, but now they knew that the United States was not going to call off the game prematurely before their final defeat. After Reykjavik, the Soviet leadership took the only rational course left open to it: accommodation.


Reykjavik had an even deeper significance, however. It was not only that Reagan insisted on holding on to SDI. It is that he was willing to walk away from the ultimate in arms control, a deal that would have won him the Nobel Prize. Reagan, however, lived for something other than recognition from bow-tied European aristocrats.


What so shocked both the Soviets and the American foreign policy elite was that Reagan's tenacity on SDI was matched by his indifference to traditional arms control. He was widely denounced for having destroyed the best opportunity for peace in a generation. But Reagan did not care. He was perfectly willing to pass up a bad deal. In doing so, Reagan helped shatter the totem of arms control, the slavish devotion to the "process" that turned agreements into ends in themselves. He refused to acquiesce to the notion that rejecting any arms control agreement would necessarily produce instability.


In fact, Reykjavik led to the opposite. It paved the way for the demise of the Soviet Union and thus, ironically, for the very need for U.S.-Soviet arms control. That denouement made plain to all what arms control skeptics had been saying for a generation: that the real problem with nuclear weapons was not the weapons themselves but the intention to use them. The weapons are not self-firing. The problem is the nature of the people prepared to fire them.


After all, the Russians still have enough nuclear weapons today to destroy the United States many times over. But we don't stay up nights worrying about it. We don't make movies and television shows and novels about the coming U.S.-Russian apocalypse, as we did by the bushel during the Cold War. The Russian nuclear arsenal hardly even figures in our politics anymore. Why? The weapons are still there, but the threat is not, because the regime has changed.


The problem was always the regime, not the weapons. With Communist ideology in ruins, Russia may now be a Great Power rival, but no longer is it an immutable enemy of the United States. It was ideology, not nuclear technology, that accounted for the hair-trigger superpower crisis of 40 years. The ideology is dead. It was Reagan's willingness to defy the theology of arms control, in particular at Reykjavik, that helped bring about its demise -- and the peace we enjoy today.

 

II


OCTOBER 13, 1999, MARKED ANOTHER MILESTONE in freeing the United States from arms control idolatry. The Senate did not just defeat, it destroyed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The treaty not only failed to command two-thirds of the Senate. It failed even to win a simple majority.


This was more than the defeat of a treaty. It was the defeat of an idea, indeed a series of ideas about nuclear weapons, about arms control, and even more generally, about the international order of parchment barriers and paper treaties that the Clinton administration has set about trying to construct during the 1990s.


It was Reykjavik II.