New arms treaty will not hurt our nuclear deterrence

The presidents of the United States and of Russia have signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which authorizes significant reductions of the nuclear weapons and delivery systems of both countries.

The prospect of loss of nuclear destructive power generates some anxiety over whether these reductions affect the deterrent capability of the United States. Not to worry. They do not. Whatever deterrence the United States may require is provided quite adequately by its awesome air and naval power, unrivaled by any state or combination of states anywhere in the world.

Any hostile state so foolish as to contemplate war with the United States will be deterred from doing so simply because it does not want to risk fighting the United States and confronting its massive conventional might, not because it fears being blown up by nuclear strikes.

The New START will not compromise that deterrent capability.

China, of course, is a nuclear power, and China and the United States are mindful of each other’s nuclear capabilities and wary of each other’s military intentions. But nuclear weaponry is not central to their relationships as it was with the Soviet Union. It is at most a passive deterrent, and remote — not active and threatening. Their competition is mainly in the economic field.

When I began writing about ethics and nuclear weapons 40-plus years ago the political situation was entirely different. At that time deterrence was absolutely central to the relationship of the United States to the Soviet Union.

The destructive power of each state was matched against the other with the threat of a second strike capability. If one side dared to fire first, the other had enough residual nuclear capacity to fire back and devastate the attacker’s military and industrial capabilities, and perhaps its entire society.

This architecture of deterrence was the basis of bipolar relationships. Any significant reduction of nuclear weapons and delivery systems by one side risked inviting the other side to strike quickly before the first party changed its mind and began rearming.

That situation changed totally with the demise of the Soviet Union. The nuclear problems of international politics are no longer those of the “balance of terror” and “mutual assured destruction.” They are nuclear proliferation and the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of unprincipled and unrestrained terrorists.

The treaty signed by the two presidents, and submitted by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Senate, addresses both of those problems. It will help work against proliferation by answering the objection from prospective nuclear states that the United States and Russia are unwilling to submit themselves to the discipline they seek to impose on others. It will reduce substantially the number of weapons available to be targeted by terrorist theft operations.

The issues of arms reductions should be addressed with reference to these two current problems and not to conditions that existed when the United States and the Soviet Union faced each other down with risks to the entire world.

Moreover, consider the fact that states with nuclear weapons or ambitions always weigh ownership of weapons and delivery systems primarily in relation to their political needs or desires and not to the technological risks of the weapons themselves. India and Pakistan muscle each other over their regional disputes and advertise their weapons in doing so. Israel will not abandon its (unannounced) nuclear weapons so long as there is a threat from Iran. North Korea develops a nuclear capability to deter the United States. Iran wants the weapons both to deter the United States and to serve its regional power ambitions. Turkey and Saudi Arabia may begin weapons development if Iran develops nuclear weaponry.

These countries will retain their weapons and pursue nuclear ambitions as long as their political interests suggest their relevance.

Which brings us back to relationships between the United States and Russia. Cooperation between these two powers is essential to managing the aforementioned political problems, as well as others. If they work different sides of these conflicts, as they have done in the past, the political difficulties will grow worse and the temptation to nuclearize the conflicts will increase.

The concluding of this treaty is the basis for cooperation between the two countries in addressing some of the world’s most threatening and disruptive problems.

The Senate should ratify the New START. It is in the national interest, and the interest of a more peaceful world.

Theodore R. Weber is professor emeritus of social ethics in Emory University and a past president of the Society of Christian Ethics in the U.S. and Canada.