Will Reductions in the Size of the Nuclear Arsenal Make the U.S. More Vulnerable?

Over at the National Journal’s Security Experts Blog, Paul Starobin asks “Is An Obama ‘No Nukes’ World Likely To Be A Safer One?”:

Is President Obama on the right track with his new commitment to unilaterally scale back America’s threat to use nuclear weapons to deter attacks on the U.S. and its allies? And as world leaders assemble in Washington on April 12 to discuss matters of global nuclear security, is Obama’s cherished goal of ridding the world of nukes ever likely to be a reality? Would a nukes-free world in fact be a safer, more peaceful one? Even if Obama is right that he is not likely to see a nuclear-free world in his lifetime, will a trend toward declining global nuclear arsenals make America more or less safe?

My response:

It was inevitable that Republicans would knock President Obama for being soft on national security, and it is likely to be an issue in this year’s mid-term elections, and in the 2012 campaign. This has been the standard mantra from the GOP playbook for over a generation, and the party’s leaders show no sign of backing away from it. But the Democrats shouldn’t be too worried. They easily turned aside such criticisms in 2006 and 2008 by pointing out that policies promoted by a Republican president, and supported by a Republican Congress – especially the ruinous Iraq war – had significantly undermined U.S. security.

With respect to nuclear weapons, the president and his allies have more than enough ammunition to refute the charges that reductions in the size of the U.S. arsenal make the U.S. more vulnerable to attack. Leaders in Washington and Moscow figured out long ago that a stable, secure and credible deterrent need not include many thousands of nuclear warheads. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, initiated the very first round of reductions in the early 1970s, and another Republican, George H.W. Bush, made even deeper cuts at the end of the Cold War. George W. Bush tacked on additional reductions under the Moscow Treaty signed with Vladimir Putin. The modest cuts envisioned by New START and implied in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) are consistent with this bipartisan trend.

But what of President Obama’s goal of a world free of nuclear weapons? He concedes that this is unlikely to occur in his lifetime, and that is almost surely the case. He is not the first U.S. leader to pledge to reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy; this is a commitment the United States made under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What will take the place of nuclear weapons if they were to be abolished? We can glean the answer from the NPR. The United States first shifted to nuclear weapons in the 1950s because they presented a far more cost effective deterrent than conventional military assets. Not surprisingly, the NPR envisions that conventional weapons – namely a forward U.S. troop presence and ballistic missile defenses – will take on greater importance as nuclear weapons recede.

This is a costly proposition at a time when U.S. military spending is already at a post-World War II high. The Obama administration does not dwell on the costs, I suspect, because many Americans are not enamored with extending an indefinite and costly security umbrella over other countries who can – and should be encouraged to – defend themselves. In short, President Obama’s determination to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons will accelerate this costly trend unless he is also willing to revisit the purpose of U.S. military power and our global posture.