Event Recap: PONI Debates the Issues on Unilateral Nuclear Arms Reductions

Mar 14, 2013
By Meggaen Neely
On February 27, 2013, Dr. Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, and Mr. Stephen Rademaker, Principal at the Podesta Group and former Assistant Secretary of State, debated whether the United States should undertake additional unilateral nuclear arms reductions. Those interested can watch or listen to the debate.
Dr. Kristensen argued in the affirmative. President Barack Obama stated his plans to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons. Yet, Congress ratified New START with the Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification, which requires that further arms reductions be made only in relation to the treaty-making power of the president. This effectively prevents the president from pursuing unilateral reductions. Dr. Kristensen argued that this diverged from the history of U.S. arms control. In the past, the United States has reduced its stockpile through a combination of bilateral treaties and unilateral initiatives or adjustments to the nuclear force posture.
Dr. Kristensen described two forms of unilateral reductions. Unilateral reciprocal reductions trigger similar steps on the other side. The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of former President George H.W. Bush provide one example. These jump-start the arms reductions process without the tedious process of negotiations. Also, they bypass the opposition of both sides’ domestic bureaucracies. Each side can use the media to pressure the other to “do the right thing,” prompting reciprocal cuts.
A second form is unilateral non-reciprocal reductions. These reduce the stockpile without requiring that the other side match them. One example is former President Bill Clinton’s elimination of a nuclear capability for the surface fleet. The advantage of such reductions is that they can shape the other party’s force planning. Reductions will be observed by the other side and influence their long-term military planning by reducing their motivation to maintain their force level.
Dr. Kristensen argued that the United States should pursue unilateral reductions as a step towards a follow-on treaty with Russia. If these steps are not taken, Dr. Kristensen predicted that current modernization efforts on both sides could lock the United States and Russia into an “unnecessarily large” force posture. The greatest threat to the existence of the continental U.S. is Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal. The goal, then, should be to reduce the potential for a massive nuclear exchange.
Mr. Rademaker responded by questioning why the United States would want to reduce further. The biggest security threat is nuclear proliferation, and U.S. nuclear weapons are the “most powerful tool” to discourage that proliferation. He pointed to Iran and North Korea as incompetent proliferators; they have taken too long to acquire nuclear weapons. By contrast, Germany, Japan, and South Korea could have quickly and effectively achieved a weapons capability, but did not. Instead, they chose to rely on an extended deterrence agreement, with the United States pledging its nuclear force to preserve their security.
With regard to Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), unilateral reductions will not fulfill U.S. obligations. Article VI does not say the United States needs to reduce its nuclear weapons, but rather that the United States must negotiate the reduction of nuclear weapons. Unilateral reductions do not meet this requirement because they involve no negotiations. Further, Mr. Rademaker argued that unilateral reductions, even if they are not binding, are an effort to circumvent the law and other branches of government.  
Mr. Rademaker spoke to the nature of negotiations, explaining that the United States must have leverage to achieve any desired outcome. If it pursues unilateral reductions, then it has given up its leverage – Russia will realize that the United States will reduce without Russia making any concessions. In the past, Russia has not complied fully with the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of the 1990s. This only underscores the fact that unilateral reductions are not binding. That being said, Mr. Rademaker concluded that the United States does not need to reduce its stockpile. The New START reductions have not been completed, so there is no urgency to reduce further.
While both debaters made excellent points, a few crucial issues remained unaddressed. Neither side discussed the issue of modernization or maintenance of U.S. nuclear weapons, another requirement in the Senate’s Resolution of Advice and Consent. With the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review’s goal of “maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced nuclear force levels,” the lingering question after a debate on unilateral reductions is a debate on the nature of the remaining force structure.
Finally, there was a noticeable gap between both participants’ understanding of the security environment. It might have been more helpful for the two to reach an agreement on this issue before determining the necessary force posture to counter the threats the United States’ faces.
Meggaen Neely is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.