The era of arms control is over…or should have been

Today, Kingston Reif over at the Nukes of Hazard blog — and you just have to love the name of that site — points out something painfully obvious: Republican presidents can talk about major reductions in nuclear weapons. Democrats can’t. And that’s a shame.

Reif points out, quite sensibly, that Republican senators, in this case, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, seize up when a Democrat proposes exactly the kinds of nuclear reductions favored by a Republican chief executive.

More to the point, Republican presidents like Bush and his father have been more willing to think about unilateral reductions, which don’t seem to cause heartburn if they say it but gives everyone the vapors if a liberal says the same thing.

Believe it or not, this isn’t pure partisanship.

Some of it comes from the way that conservatives and liberals see the world around them, as well as the fact that they just don’t trust each other. (They never really did. The vaunted era of foreign policy bipartisanship never really existed, but that’s an issue for the historians to discuss.)

In my new book — you knew the shameless plug was coming – I talk about this at length, and I argue that the United States should return to the path of arms reductions suggested by George W. Bush, which was actually a more liberal proposal than what President Obama is pushing.

Here’s Reif explaining it today:

In a well-coordinated series of press statements and op-eds in response to the speech, Republican members of Congress, former Bush administration officials, and the ICBM pork caucus trotted out the standard-issue talking points against changing our outdated nuclear strategy. But in a fit of candor, Sen. Sessions strayed wildly off-message and revealed the pure, unadulterated partisanship animating his party’s attitude on nuclear weapons issues. The day after the President’s speech, Sessions told a gathering on Capitol Hill that:

If George Bush said I think we could get to 1000, 1100 nuclear weapons and I believe we can still defend America, that’s one thing.

The thing is, George Bush pretty much did say that.

After his election, President Bush continued to voice his preference for unilaterally reducing the US nuclear arsenal. In a November 2001 press conference with Vladimir Putin, Bush announced that pursuant to a recently completed nuclear posture review, the United States would reduce its arsenal of deployed strategic warheads from approximately 6,000 to 1,700-2,200 (!) as a matter of national policy without a formal arms control agreement with Russia. “We don’t need arms control negotiations,” Bush said, “to reduce our weaponry in a significant way.”

And he was right.

Bush was showing a clear impatience with the cumbersome machinery of arms control. Like most Presidents, Bush was appalled at the size of the U.S. arsenal when he got his first briefing on it in May 2001. Like most Republicans, Bush was less about process than about outcomes.

That’s not a slam on Democrats; rather, it’s pointing out that the Democrats have always had a more lawyerly, legalistic approach to arms control than their brethren across the aisle. Sometimes that’s not a bad idea: process keeps people talking, and talking is better than fighting. But sometimes, it’s just pointless. (Exhibit A: Jimmy Carter’s chief negotiator Paul Warnke in 1977 smugly declaring that Americans must “educate the Soviet marshals” out of their “primitive” notions about nuclear war. Uh huh. Guess who schooled whom.)

This is because liberals, as a rule, value international institutions and practices more than conservatives. Conservatives, by their nature, tend to be pessimists. This is the way I put it in chapter three of No Use: 

As a general observation, American liberals tend to value international institutions, see the processes of international negotiation with opponents as valuable in itself, and are sympathetic—sometimes overly so—to the concerns of other nations about the magnitude of U.S. power.

Conservatives, by contrast, focus on the anarchical nature of the international system, and are more attracted to the classical imperative of self-help. They think in terms of outcomes, rather than processes: international institutions and negotiations are important only insofar as they tangibly assist U.S. security, a belief which that itself reveals an often corrosive—and often self-fulfilling—cynicism about those institutions and their purposes.

If unilateral reductions were okay 12 years ago under Bush, they’re okay now. We should leave the Russians behind to babysit their own oversized arsenal. Nuclear superiority, as it turns out, didn’t matter 40 years ago, and it doesn’t matter today. Time to move on.

About the author