Fewer Nuclear Weapons Might Not Make America Safer

There is no proof that further nuclear weapons reductions will make America safer.

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Dmitri Medvedev of Russia walk with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada at the G8 summit in Muskoka, June 25, 2010
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Dmitri Medvedev of Russia walk with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada at the G8 summit in Muskoka, June 25, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama on Wednesday called for further American and Russian nuclear arms reductions. But there’s no proof that it would make either country more safe.

The president reminded Berliners in a speech that he had already “reduced the number and role of America’s nuclear weapons” during his first term. The New START treaty signed with Russia in 2010 limits both nations’ deployed warheads to 1550, a significant reduction from the more than 5,000 warheads the United States had deployed that year — which was 84 percent less than it had during the height of the Cold War in 1967.

“Because of the New START treaty,” the president recognized, “we’re on track to cut American and Russian deployed nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s. But we have more work to do.” Obama claimed that the United States could reduce their nuclear stockpile by up to another third while maintaining “a strong and credible strategic deterrent.”

The ultimate aim of Obama’s nuclear policy is to rid the world of such weapons altogether. “We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” he said.

That might not be true. Matthew Kroenig wrote in Foreign Policy on the day Obama spoke in the German capital that a sizable nuclear deterrent enhances a nation’s interests.

In an analysis of 52 countries that participated in nuclear crises from 1945 to 2001 (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), I found that the state with the greater number of warheads is over seventeen times more likely to achieve its goals. In addition, there is qualitative evidence from these crises that leaders in nuclear armed states pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe nuclear superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates directly into a geopolitical advantage.

On the other hand, there is no evidence whatsoever that nuclear weapons reductions make a country, or the world for that matter, safer.

If there are strategic costs and no identifiable benefits to further reducing the American nuclear arsenal, the United States should logically refrain from making further reductions, argued Kroenig.

Some may find this argument provocative but it is actually quite anodyne; I recommend simply that the United States maintain the status quo. What is provocative is slashing America’s nuclear arsenal to sixty year lows in the face of evidence suggesting that doing so will harm our national interests.

The Russians, unfettered by Obama’s nuclear idealism, will likely make a similar calculation and resist further reduction efforts. If they do, it will be almost impossible politically for the president to shrink America’s nuclear arsenal further when lawmakers do not want to be accused of agreeing to unilateral disarmament in their next election campaign.