Obama and Medvedev

It is on the basis of unconvincing justifications that the Obama Administration on May 3rd de-classified and released to the public a comprehensive listing of the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile. The newly released data covers the period from fiscal 1962 through 2009 and shows that as of the end of fiscal year 2009 the U.S. had 5,113 nuclear weapons in its stockpile. The Administration is providing two justifications. The first is that the release is important to pursuing non-proliferation goals. The second is that it will assist the pursuit of another arms control treaty with Russia that will cover all nuclear weapons, and not just deployed strategic nuclear weapons.

The first justification implies that the U.S. must publicly demonstrate that it is on the path to reducing its nuclear stockpile to zero in order to induce other states with nuclear weapons to join the non-proliferation regime or come into compliance with their nonproliferation obligations. It is highly unlikely that this inducement will have its intended effect. In fact, it is more likely to spur greater proliferation as rogue regimes see an opportunity exploit the vacuum the Administration’s nuclear disarmament policy is creating and U.S. friends and allies see the need to fill this vacuum with nuclear weapons of their own.

The release is also a clever way of implying that the U.S., particularly during the George W. Bush Administration, was violating Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), without saying so directly. Article VI of the NPT establishes an aspiration for eventual nuclear disarmament and is a major subject of debate at the Treaty’s five-year review conference in New York, which also began on May 3rd. The fact is that the U.S. has always been in compliance with the NPT and the released data shows that the number of weapons in the stockpile came down by over 5,000 weapons during the years of the Bush Administration.

The second justification is predicated on the assumption that Russia will adopt similar levels of transparency prior to the initiation of the next round of arms control negotiations, which the Administration wants to cover all nuclear weapons. In fact, the Russians now have a precise target to draw upon to calibrate their negotiating tactics in order to achieve a distinct advantage over the U.S. in nuclear weapons. This is particularly the case regarding non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons, where Russia already enjoys a huge advantage. The U.S. has no cards to play at the negotiating table in this area. The outcome is almost certain to be an agreement where an equal numerical reduction is required for each side that reduces the U.S. non-strategic arsenal to near zero and leaves Russia with thousands of the same category of weapons and forces the U.S. to withdraw all its non-strategic weapons from Europe.

President Obama appears fixated on the idea that U.S. unilateralism in arms control will lead to improved security based increased personal popularity around the world. In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that President Obama is on a unilateral treadmill that he cannot get off and U.S. security will be undermined as a result. He is finding that each unilateral concession he makes to meet foreign expectations that the U.S. lead by example in nuclear disarmament only results in more demands for U.S. unilateralism. It is only a matter of time before President Obama and the American people discover that his personal popularity is not as great a national security asset as he expects.