Has President Obama ended a second cold war? A cascade of news stories and editorials are creating the impression that his newly concluded START agreement with Moscow heralds a breakthrough in an intensifying standoff between Russia and the United States. "The new treaty represents perhaps the most concrete foreign policy achievement for Mr. Obama since he took office 14 months ago," gushes the New York Times. The Washington Post, for its part, hails the treaty as "the most extensive nuclear arms-control agreement in nearly two decades”; it represents “President Obama's first victory in his ambitious agenda to move toward a nuclear-free world."
This narrative rests on a single premise: namely that between the 1991 START agreement and Obama’s new treaty, nothing of genuine significance occurred in the arms control arena with Russia. Particularly under the George W. Bush administration, the argument goes, the nuclear standoff with the Kremlin was treated with benign neglect as security perils multiplied. But all this is myth wrapped in a legend, shrouded by fable, and also almost wholly irrelevant—except in the imagination of arms-control enthusiasts—to American security.
One central development largely airbrushed out of the picture is the 2002 Moscow Treaty negotiated by President Bush and ratified 95 to 0 by the Senate seven years ago this month. The Moscow Treaty required each side to reduce its operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a level of between 1,700 and 2,200 by the year 2012. At the time the treaty was signed, the United States had roughly 6,000 of such warheads. In May of last year, before the Obama administration had gotten even a toe wet in the nuclear realm, the number had already been cut to 2,126. The Bush administration had brought about a radical decrease of more than 60 percent—retiring 4,000 warheads from operational service—from the 2002 level, achieved nearly four years ahead of the Moscow agreement’s schedule.
By contrast, President Obama’s START agreement cuts American warheads from the current 2,100 to a level of 1,550. The United States will thus be making, thanks to Obama’s negotiating prowess, a reduction of, at most, a mere 550 warheads. Which president made the larger cuts, and which president reaped a larger reward?
Of course it was Obama who won a free trip to Oslo to pick up a Nobel Prize even before he had a single arms-control notch with Russia in his belt. Though Bush’s legacy remains far more significant, it is unimaginable that the former president would ever be considered even a runner-up for such a tribute. His abiding inability properly to pronounce "nuclear" was the least significant of many peccadilloes that made him ineligible for plaudits even when, by the stated objectives of arms-control advocates, praise was heavily warranted. The pillars of the liberal establishment would no doubt prefer to sit all day on plutonium pits than give Bush credit for beating warheads into ploughshares.
But ironies abound here. There may be conservatives in Congress and elsewhere who also prefer to sit on plutonium pits rather than support Mr. Obama’s new treaty, which they say weakens America’s deterrent or is inadequately verifiable. The trouble is that many of these voices were quiet or silent while George W. Bush slashed the U.S. arsenal over the course of his two terms in office. This raises the question of whether high strategy or low politics is behind the criticism of the new START agreement.
Whatever the answer, a plague should descend on both camps. For the disquieting reality is that arms-control accords with Russia are a diversion from the real security challenge before us in the nuclear arena. In the world we live in today, whether Russia has 2,000 or 1,000 nuclear warheads matters far less than whether North Korea and Iran have one nuclear warhead or zero. North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can thus share a chuckle at our tragicomic celebration of a treaty with Russia that leaves the central security issue of the day untouched. The fundamental flaw of the new START treaty is that it will do nothing to end their laughter.