Reliable Security Information

Do Russia and the U.S. Need Marriage Counseling?

The new START treaty, just signed by President Obama and President Medvedev, is discussed as if the two global powers were engaged in a Tiger Woods marriage counseling session. The treaty is said to build trust, 'reset' the relationships, increase transparency, and send a message to others who may consider having a nuclear affair. As someone who spent the last fifty years studying sociology, I have no doubt that nations can improve their relationships and be better for it. But at the end of the day--and I do mean the day, not the decade--one must also count the silver. That is, what is real and what are mainly warm words? And who gets what?

The new treaty's real achievements are modest and uneven. They are limited because the treaty, if ratified, requires the parties to reduce the many thousands of nuclear bombs both sides have to a smaller number, still enough to kill most everyone. What difference does it make if we and Russia can destroy the world only three times instead of six times? Moreover, a good part of the change is carried out with smoke and mirrors. For instance, strategic bombers are now counted as one launcher, even if they can carry several bombs. And the warheads that are removed from launchers are stored but do not have to be dismantled. And while the alert level is going to be reduced, giving leaders more time before they must push the launch button if they believe their country is under attack--which is a very good idea--the alert level can be raised again rather readily. Above all, the treaty does not deal with the tactical nuclear arms, which are numerous, particularly attractive to terrorists, and not well guarded. They are much more of a current threat than the strategic ones.

The treaty seems even but is not. It does require both sides to cut their arsenals to the same extent and for both to subject themselves to verification systems (although we made some one-sided concessions to the Russians in these matters). However, as I discovered during an April 2 meeting at the Kremlin last year, the treaty serves a core Russian military need, which the U.S. does not face. The Russian conventional military forces are in very dire straights. Their equipment is obsolete and crumbling. Their capability to finance modernization of their forces, given their small economy and its poor condition, is rather limited. Hence they were very keen to see the nuclear forces cut, so they can use their spare rubles to well maintain at least these forces. The Obama administration hopes that by in effect helping the Russians out on this front, they will help us in dealing with Iran. However neither the treaty, nor the negotiations that surrounded it, I was told by our representatives, tied these two things together. We are thus left depending on Russia's good will.

The most important issue concerning nuclear safety for us, our allies, and the world is going to be faced next, when President Obama assembles the leaders of forty nations to enhance the safeguarding of nuclear arms and the material from which they can be made, to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists and rogue states, as well as in trying to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in a May meeting. We shall find out soon enough if transnational marriage counseling leads to less screwing around and more securing of nukes, or if it is just more talk and warm words-- some heartfelt, some mere empty shells.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of International Relations at The George Washington University, and the author of Security First (Yale 2007).

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