Thursday, December 30, 2010

A New START for a New Year

I recently finished George Friedman's "The Next 100 Years." I recommend it, not because I agree with most of it, but because it has some excellent nuggets, and the author does a superb job walking through his logic. That makes it easy for the reader to determine where he and Friedman diverge.

Friedman's major point is that geopolitics will dominate the next century, just as it did the last.  While that initially seemed a sound point, he then makes a too-literal argument for geopolitics--that nation-state war will continue just as it did in the 1800's and early 1900's. That's where he goes wrong, and where the New START treaty comes in.

The argument most opponents of New START make is that it doesn't restrict tactical nuclear weapons. (The other argument is that missile defense is discussed in the preamble, which the Senate, in its ratification, specified is not legally binding.)  It doesn't, but the lack of limits on tactical nukes really shouldn't be a surprise in a treaty called the STrategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

While Russia can certainly invade Georgia if it wants to, it doesn't need tactical nuclear weapons to do it.  It can do so simply because of its size.  It cannot, however, invade a NATO member.  Or, more precisly, it dare not.  Russia invaded Georgia for many reasons, but not the least of which was making the point to NATO that they should choose their friends carefully.  True, but the reverse is also true--it is unlikely Russia is willing to risk war, let alone nuclear war, by challenging NATO so blatantly.  The Soviet Union never risked it.

And, if Russia won't risk nuclear retaliation, what good are its thousands of tactical nukes?  I think Friedman goes wrong when he thinks European nations will return to their pre-World War II ways because of "geopolitics." In the world he supposes, possession of nuclear weapons becomes the guarantor of national survival, and any advanced nation-state can develop a nuclear weapon in a matter of years, not decades.  But--and this is key--nukes are not a weapon that can be used to coerce.  Doing so is simply not credible. 

It is possible, however unlikely, that nation-states might risk the 21st century equivalent of a conventional "border war," but Russia threatening to use tactical nukes in any situation is simply not credible--the risk is too great.  The last thing Russia wants is NATO members abandoning the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and developing their own defensive nuclear arsenal.  So, given that, Russia's tactical nukes are a threat only as far as they are at risk of loss or theft.  That certainly has a probability greater than 0, but the logical follow-on to that concern is that anything we can do to reduce the Russian nuclear arsenal equals progress.

Russia may not see it that way, but ultimately, that doesn't really matter.  What does matter is that Russia has made clear they wouldn't be interested in a New START follow-on if they couldn't count on the US to ratify the deal they negotiated.  Geopolitics aside, that's actually a pretty reasonable position.  Would you talk to a car dealer or realtor that offered you a deal, and then reneged without good cause? Doubtful.

So, ultimately, New START simply restarts old START, and shaves a few more warheads off the Moscow Treaty limits negotiated under the Bush administration. Yes, there are some limits on launchers, but those are questions the military has dealt with since the original SALT talks.  There are many good questions about whether we negotiated the best deal possible, but that's a separate issue.  The Senate can certainly address that later, if they're really interested.  Secretary Clinton will certainly testify next year on many things, and that might be an excellent question.

But, ultimately, ratification was an easy choice--little downside, a necessary step to further progress, and lays the foundation for the real conversation yet to come.

Happy New Year.