Why No State Needs Thousands of Nuclear Warheads
Last week, the United States signed a five-year extension of the New START arms control treaty with Russia. Russia’s President Putin signed the treaty shortly thereafter. The “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty” allows Russia and the US to monitor each other’s nuclear forces, facilities, and activities. The idea is to keep track of the relative strength of the two regimes’ respective arsenals and to encourage reductions. The treaty also caps the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550 each. (The total stockpiles for the US and Russia are 4,700 and 4,300, respectively.)
The move is a departure from the Trump administration’s opposition to the treaty. The Trump administration had wanted to renegotiate the treaty, insisting that so-called tactical nuclear weapons—designed for battlefield use—be included. As it is, the treaty focuses only on strategic weapons. The Trump administration also insisted that China be added to the treaty. The Chinese declined to participate. President Trump also ended two other arms treaties, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty.
These all may sound to many readers like rather momentous changes to policy. But this is all a lot of political theater.
Just as the Trump administration used the abrogation of these treaties as red meat for the “America first” crowd,1 the Biden administration is surely more than happy to use the treaty to demonstrate how Biden is a departure from Trump. The treaty may even offer military lobbyists the opportunity to point to Russian stockpiles and claim the US must find ways to balance or counter Russian nuclear capabilities. Putin, meanwhile, can say that he signed a treaty limiting the arsenal of the far-richer American regime, which has a lot more money to spend on nuclear weapons. For Putin, this is important because the Russian state has been looking to economize and has been reducing or moderating military spending in recent years.
In short, arms treaties like New START serve a domestic political function. They help politicians take credit for allegedly pursuing peace while also potentially justifying more military spending overall.
In practice, however, the extension of the treaty does not reduce the risk of nuclear war, and it certainly won’t make nuclear arms disappear or even be substantially reduced. It is the presence of the nuclear weapons themselves that has deterred both the US and the Russians—and the Soviets before them—from a nuclear conflict. Moreover, the arms limitations provisions of the treaty won’t change the status quo of deterrence. Both nations have more than enough nuclear capability to achieve a deterrent effect, and given the current thinking within each regime, it’s a safe bet neither will agree to a treaty which threatened to reduce arsenal levels to anywhere near levels of “minimum deterrence.”
Yet, in practice, both regimes could reduce nuclear spending and nuclear stockpiles far below current levels without sacrificing deterrence. Neither regime, however, is likely to risk making any sizable reductions. The ideal of overwhelming nuclear force still has many friends in both Washington and Moscow.
The Value of Minimum Deterrence
Whether or not politicians believe in the use of minimum deterrence has little to do with whether or not it is actually effect
Article from Mises Wire