The most visible dispute in U.S.-Russian relations now pits the American desire for protection from prospective Iranian and North Korean nuclear missile threats against the Russian desire for the United States to remain fully vulnerable to Russia’s offensive nuclear capabilities. Russian officials are demanding that the United States sign a legal document guaranteeing that the United States will, as a matter of policy, intentionally remain exposed to Russian nuclear weapons. This may seem extraordinary, even by Russian standards. But this demand harks back to the Cold War, when the United States ultimately made just this commitment in deference to the requirements of a supposedly “stable” balance of terror.
Russia’s officials place great emphasis on this Cold War-vintage commitment to American vulnerability. Indeed, despite the fact that the words “stable” and “stability” are devoid of any agreed meaning in the post-Cold War era, Russia’s favorite line now is to demand continued U.S. exposure for the sake of stability. Russian officials insisted on inserting language to this effect into the New START treaty and constantly appeal to “stability” as code for the perpetuation of a U.S. policy of vulnerability. These appeals are well received by many in the United States who are comfortable with the benign-sounding terms of the Cold War balance of terror, including the absence of U.S. defenses, and favor its continuation. In President Obama’s recent unguarded, “open mike” moment, he reassured former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” regarding U.S. defenses after the forthcoming presidential election.
The historical baggage associated with the question of whether to defend the U.S. population is enormous. In the 1960s and 1970s, successive presidents decided not to pursue serious defenses against Soviet strategic nuclear attack because of the belief that meaningful protection could not be sustained given possible Soviet offensive counter-moves, and because they believed that U.S. defenses would “destabilize” the balance of terror.
The public was largely unaware that its government had essentially agreed as a matter of policy to forgo defense against nuclear attack; surveys consistently revealed that Americans wrongly believed they were defended. The contemporary Russian demand for a continued U.S. commitment to vulnerability raises yet again the question of if and how to defend U.S. society.
Those who favor protracting U.S. vulnerability to Russian, and now Chinese, attack claim that this is unavoidable—not a policy choice. The implication is why resist the inevitable? This is nonsense. U.S. exposure to nuclear and other forms of attack by weapons of mass destruction is indeed a reality, but that reality is not -unalterable. The public’s vulnerability to various forms of attack may be higher or lower, depending on the decision of the U.S. government to protect Americans or not. The difference could be thousands or even millions of American lives saved or lost.
It is important to note with regard to the Cold War legacy of vulnerability that U.S. officials at the time defined meaningful defense as effective protection for more than 80 percent of the population against a large-scale Soviet nuclear attack. Anything less was deemed meaningless and not worth the effort. The effect of this type of thinking was profound.
For example, in 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara called for the withdrawal of 22 U.S. squadrons of air defense interceptor aircraft because Defense Department analyses showed that they might only save up to five million American lives. That did not reach the threshold for meaningful defense, according to McNamara, and thus the squadrons were judged not worth maintaining.
This definition of what could constitute meaningful, sustainable protection and the related acceptance of virtually unmitigated vulnerability led the United States to forgo most forms of direct protection for decades. This is the Cold War policy orientation to which Russian officials still appeal with their blustery demands about stability and U.S. legal guarantees of continued vulnerability.
It is important to understand that the Cold War rejection of defenses in many cases makes no sense today. This was demonstrated on 9/11, when the United States could not muster serious air defenses in a timely way. The government’s longstanding acceptance of virtually unlimited societal vulnerability had left the country with trivial capabilities for self-defense against any strategic attack.