Toward nuclear-free world

By Lee Hamilton
Apr 20 2009

 Two weeks ago I addressed the U.S.-Russian relationship in this space, doing so in broad terms. To be more specific, the reduction of the threat nuclear weapons pose should be the top priority in our dealings with Moscow. On this issue, because the U.S. and Russia possess roughly 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, Moscow's cooperation is essential. U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to agree recently in London that this can be the jumping-off point for renewing our relationship.


In recent years U.S.-Russian relations have soured, impeding progress on this vital task. While the United States cannot, and should not, bend over backwards to address every Russian grievance, we must set priorities, listen to Russia's concerns, limit disputes and seek common ground when possible.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, no good reason exists for the United States and Russia to maintain thousands of nuclear weapons apiece. Each of the other seven known or suspected nuclear-armed countries (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom) has a handful to a few hundred warheads at most.

The primary reason to begin negotiations to reduce nuclear weapons arsenals is to make the world safer.

The landmark START arms reduction treaty is set to expire in December. We achieved the 1991 accord's mandated nuclear cuts years ago, but the treaty's verification regime remains a critical tool for bilateral information-sharing — and therefore threat reduction — on nuclear matters. Without those data, the risks of mistrust, miscalculations and misunderstandings will only grow.

This month Obama and Medvedev agreed to attempt negotiations of a successor treaty to START that would reduce each of their nuclear arsenals below the current treaty level of 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads. That is a good start.

But the stakes are too great to risk START lapsing without a follow-on treaty. The United States and Russia must develop a backup plan to extend the key verification measures in START in case negotiations over cuts in nuclear warheads bog down.

One issue that could complicate further negotiations is differences on missile defense. Thus, parallel talks on U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation and confidence-building are desirable. Pushing urgently forward with the controversial missile-defense deployments to Poland and the Czech Republic may not be unnecessary. The earliest the proposed missile interceptor is to be tested against a target is 2010 and an Iranian long-range missile capability is estimated to be years away.

Eventually, the goal of negotiations is reconciliation between the countries on both their offensive and defensive strategic weapon systems. In the short term, they could conduct a joint missile threat assessment of Iran and revive the stalled project to build a Moscow-based center where U.S. and Russian officials would work side-by-side to quickly share information on global missile launches.

Improving relations with Moscow on nuclear arms and missile defense could enhance the U.S.-Russian cooperation necessary to eliminate and secure excess nuclear weapons and materials globally, particularly inside Russia and the former Soviet Republics.

Those programs merit increased attention and funding because they provide the surest protection against the threat of nuclear terrorism by putting arms and materials out of terrorist reach. A secondary benefit is that those programs build working relationships between U.S. and Russian officials that can serve as foundations for future agreements.

Russian cooperation also is crucial for dealing with North Korea and Iran, particularly if we are to prevail in persuading Iran to honor its commitment to forswear acquiring nuclear arms. The overall state of U.S.-Russian relations likely will affect Russian policy toward Iran.

The nuclear threat that characterized the Cold War belongs to that era. Diminishing the legacy of that threat is necessary so that the United States and Russia can focus on moving toward the formidable challenge of achieving a nuclear-free world. Such a world may be beyond our grasp now, but the world becomes safer with each step we take toward that goal.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)