Small Steps Toward a Nuke-Free World

In the international arena, cooperation is good and conflict is bad. Unfortunately, conflict is also dramatic, and leaders who engage in it tend to get attention while instances of cooperation often pass unnoticed. A president who fights a war makes the history books; wars avoided are rarely commented on. So it's worth taking time to note that despite -- or, rather, because of -- the lack of drama during this week's presidential trip to Russia, something hugely important happened: A deal on steep bilateral reductions in nuclear weapons has made the world a much safer place.

The lack of drama is, itself, a noteworthy turn of events. Ever since Vladimir Putin's leadership and high oil prices allowed Russia to regain the state capacity it largely lost in the 1990s, the United States and Russia have had some persistent differences of perspective. Most notably, the U.S. wants to see the former Soviet republics treated like real independent states. Russia, by contrast, looks at its so-called near abroad in much the way the United States has traditionally treated Central America and the Caribbean islands—as a privileged sphere of influence. The Russian view that neighboring governments should be coerced into following the Moscow line is both morally wrong and pragmatically counterproductive, just as American imperialism in our backyard has been. But Americans nonetheless go wrong when we try to elevate these issues to the center of our bilateral relationship. For all last summer's talk of us being "all Georgians now," the reality is that we're not Georgians, and the relationship between Tblisi and Moscow is always going to be a bigger point of emphasis for the Russians than it will for us.

Under the circumstances, the genius of the Obama approach hasn't been that he's solved the thorny issues (he hasn't). It's that he didn't let the thorny issues dominate the agenda to the exclusion of more productive talks. Instead, he focused the agenda on the question of nuclear-arms control, an area in which U.S. and Russian interests are similar enough to be productively reconciled through diplomacy.

Thus, according to the "joint understanding" released Monday, the U.S. and Russia will commit to reducing nuclear arsenals from the current ceiling of 2,200 warheads to a range of 1,500 to 1,675. This would shrink U.S. and Russian arsenals by approximately 30 percent . And since the U.S. and Russia account for 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, that's about a 28 percent reduction world wide.

The agreement serves Russia's interests well because, simply put, maintaining a large nuclear arsenal is expensive. For the United States, with our $13 trillion gross domestic product, the current nuclear posture is wasteful. For Russia, a country with a $2.26 trillion GDP, the expense is ruinous. All the same, the Russians see nuclear near-parity with the United States as an important part of their national narrative and a source of prestige in the world. By agreeing to bilateral cuts, we basically offer the Russians a face-saving way out by going tit for tat with them.

At the same time, Obama gets to make real headway on his earlier promise to recommit the United States to the long-term goal of total nuclear disarmament. The objective, if met, would strongly advance America's interests. Even though we're the country that invented nuclear weapons, we are in many ways the nation most threatened by their existence. Differently framed, we're one of the countries least threatened by conventional armaments, given that we have the world's largest economy, largest military, and a favorable geographical location. Despite that security, we worry, rightly, about nuclear-armed "rogue" states and terrorist organizations who could manage to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. A nuclear-free world would be a world free of such threats -- a safer world for Americans.

More immediately, concrete steps toward disarmament help build support among non-nuclear states for tough measures against proliferators like Iran and North Korea. The global bargain enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was a two-way deal. Non-nuclear states agreed to refrain from building nuclear weapons, and the existing nuclear powers agreed to work toward their abolition. Those non-weapons states, many of which (Japan, Germany, Italy, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia) are significant regional powers, are getting impatient to see signs that the nuclear powers are serious about this.

Perhaps most important, bilateral reductions in Russian and American arsenals can help give China peace of mind. In virtually every non-nuclear respect, China has surpassed Russia as the globe's "other" significant geopolitical actor after the United States. That naturally raises the notion that China should seek to match or even exceed Russia in nuclear terms, "leveling up" with the United States. On its own terms, such a move would be dangerous insofar as it could increase Sino-American tensions. But it would also look incredibly threatening to India which would likely feel the need to respond by increasing its own arsenal. That, in turn, would put pressure on Pakistan to further increase its arsenal, and so on.

The agreement reached this week in Russia can help stem that tide. Checking this potential proliferation cascade does not solve the complicated and multifaceted problems of Pakistan. But it is a major step in the right direction, as well as an important step toward promoting a cooperating relationship between the United States and China, between the United States and India, between India and China, and not least, between Russia and the United States.

And it's all been achieved with a minimum of drama: a meeting, a handshake, a communiqué, a promise to follow up with additional negotiations on the technical details, and a flight to another continent. To some, it will look like not much is happening in terms of Obama administration foreign policy. In fact, it's the very lack of drama that underscores the success of the new progressive approach. You don't hear about the international crises that don't happen, but a crisis avoided is the best kind of all.

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