President Obama chose to announce a new United States nuclear strategy not to the American people, not even to members of Congress, but to German citizens. Presumably, he thought a speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, where great Presidents like Kennedy and Reagan spoke before, would confer some legitimacy on his policies.
Since another U.S./Russia nuclear weapon reduction would require U.S. Senate ratification, he would have been better off to consult with Members of Congress first. But that is not his way, which is one reason he’s having a hard time getting any of his agenda passed by Congress.
Likewise, he might have first asked the Russians if they were interested. Indeed, Russian officials, like Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, have already stated that further reductions in strategic nuclear weapons can’t be considered until the U.S. provides the guarantees Russia is seeking on U.S. missile defense deployments. Such guarantees are, of course, non‑starters for the U.S., as our missile defenses are too important to the defense of the American people and their allies to trade away to Russia under any circumstances, especially for more reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons!
The President announced that he has decided on a new nuclear employment strategy for the United States that makes possible reducing our deployed strategic weapons by one third. But he never explained what has changed in the two years since his senior military commanders testified before the Senate that the 1550 deployed strategic warheads agreed to under the New START treaty is, “exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent.” The President certainly can’t argue that Russian or Chinese nuclear forces have receded – in fact, both states are currently in full swing modernizing their nuclear forces, including testing and deploying new nuclear-armed submarines and ballistic missiles. And countries like North Korea and Iran are developing nuclear weapons, not eliminating them. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated in 2010, “nuclear weapons will be with us for a long time. After this treaty [the New START treaty] our focus must be on stopping dangerous proliferators—not on further reductions in the U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals, which are really no threat to each other or to international stability.”
Further, the president announced that he would unilaterally reduce our tactical and strategic nuclear weapons “hedge”, which is critical to U.S. and allied security (1) in the event that the President’s hopes for a more peaceful relationship with Russia and China don’t pan out – and history is replete with examples of heart-breaking reality crushing even the best of intentions – and (2) because the U.S. nuclear weapons are as old as they have ever been (more than twice the design life) and some weapons may need to be replaced from the hedge. In addition, the hedge is critical because the U.S. (unlike Russia and China) has no production capacity to replace unreliable or unsafe nuclear weapons.
Finally, the Administration has spoken with different voices on whether it will even commit to abide by the established, and bipartisan, tradition of seeking Senate ratification for nuclear reductions. The President should be familiar with the bipartisan Biden-Helms standard on such matters: “With the exception of the SALT I agreement, every significant arms control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted to the Senate pursuant to the Treaty Clause of the Constitution…we see no reason whatsoever to alter this practice.” The President would be well suited to follow the counsel of his Vice President, and assure the Senate that he will not attempt to make these reductions without its concurrence.
This is, after all, a matter of U.S. national security, even though the president chose to announce it to Germans.
Jon Kyl is the former Senate Republican Minority Whip from Arizona, now with Covington and Burling, and the American Enterprise Institute.