What missile defense and nuclear disarmament have in common
Responding to James Carafano’s July 29 critique of New START, William Hartung asserts that the proposed nuclear arms treaty imposes no limitations on U.S. missile defense options. It’s a faithful parroting of the administration line. But given Hartung’s longstanding views regarding missile defense, arms control and nuclear disarmament, this argument—coming from him—is quite disingenuous.
Should New START enter into force, it is a virtual certainty that—excepting only the government of Russia—Hartung would be the first in line to state that improving U.S. missile defense capabilities is incompatible with the terms of the treaty. His argument that New START imposes no restrictions on missile defense is only a temporary—and rather transparent—expedient to encourage Senate ratification of the treaty.
At the heart of the debate over missile defense and New START is the language in its preamble. This language prohibits defensive capabilities that have the potential to undermine the “viability and effectiveness” of Russia’s strategic nuclear force. Hartung argues that language in the preamble is not legally binding. That’s highly questionable. But even if true, the language is certainly morally and politically binding.
There’s also the problem of imprecision. The meaning of the phrase “viability and effectiveness” depends on circumstance and is in the eye of the beholder. For example, if the Russians decide to predicate their strategic nuclear force on the basis of a first strike option, they may freely claim that U.S. missile defense capabilities undermine the viability and effectiveness of its strategic nuclear force. After all, nothing complicates first strike options like effective missile defense.
More likely, the Russians will argue that U.S. missile defenses jeopardize its retaliatory (“second strike”) strategic nuclear capability. The central purpose of such a strike would be to kill as many Americans as possible. Hartung would agree with a Russian assertion that its strategic nuclear force exists to provide a second strike option. How, then, can he oppose defending the American people, and by extension America’s allies, against a nuclear strike by Russia or any other nuclear-armed state?
There is no good answer to this question. While he and Carafano clearly disagree about many issues related to arms control, there is one thing they should agree on: the inappropriateness and ineffectiveness of a second strike nuclear deterrence policy.
It is surprising and disturbing that Hartung of all people takes refuge in the argument for a strategic posture that gives both the U.S. and Russia nuclear forces large enough “for either side to destroy the other many times over.” It’s even more disturbing when you consider that the U.S. must deter potential aggression not just—or even primarily—from Russia, but from an increasing number of newly-armed nuclear states as well. It falls in the category of small favors, one presumes, that Hartung stops short of applying the logic of second strike deterrence to nuclear-armed terrorists. In this case, at least, he appears not to object to defensive options.
Hartung ought to try the following thought experiment on for size. What if New START’s preamble made the following statement: “Mindful of the fact that nuclear disarmament is incompatible with strategic stability because it will undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties….”
Both robust strategic defenses, including missile defenses, and nuclear disarmament are incompatible with second-strike deterrence postures. That this language is not in the preamble demonstrates only that Hartung’s disingenuousness regarding New START restrictions imposed on the U.S. missile defense program is matched by the Russian government’s disingenuousness regarding the matter of nuclear disarmament.
Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.