President Obama will propose large-scale nuclear arms reductions worldwide in tonight’s State of the Union address, according to The New York Times.

The White House, however, has stated that a proposal of the sort described in the NYT article will not be made in the address. Perhaps the White House concluded that it would be bad timing to propose large-scale reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal merely hours after North Korea has conducted yet another explosive nuclear test.

Nevertheless, the article goes on to say that the President will not propose specific numbers, but that the Administration has agreed to reduce the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal from current levels of more than 1,700 weapons to around 1,000. The article also suggests that Obama is looking for ways to achieve these reductions inside the existing framework of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia so that he can avoid the advice and consent of the Senate that a new treaty would require.

Substantively, a proposal for additional nuclear arms reductions will be misguided:

  1. The New START reductions are still in the process of being achieved and there is no compelling reason for moving to additional reductions until the current treaty is executed.
  2. The U.S. faces a dangerous circumstance as a result of Russia’s superior non-strategic (short-range) nuclear force. Even under New START it is clear that Russia will achieve overall nuclear superiority over the U.S., which will undermine the long-standing U.S. policies for extended nuclear deterrence and assurance for the protection of U.S. allies.
  3. Reductions will make it all but impossible to meet rational targeting requirements for the U.S. nuclear force. These requirements would make it much less palatable for any nuclear-armed state to conduct a strategic attack on the U.S. and its allies.

Procedurally, a proposal that seeks to achieve additional nuclear arms reductions by means that circumvent the Senate’s role in the arms control process will be illegal. Section 2573 (b) of Title 22 of the U.S. Code, which is related to matters of arms control and disarmament, states:

No action shall be taken pursuant to this chapter or any other Act that would obligate the United States to reduce or limit the Armed Forces or armaments of the United States in a militarily significant manner, except pursuant to the treaty-making power of the President set forth in Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution or unless authorized by the enactment of further affirmative legislation by the Congress of the United States.

Also, the Senate has spoken to the specific circumstances pertaining to any modification or reinterpretation of New START or a new agreement that would reduce the U.S. arsenal to levels below those included in New START, which clearly includes what the NYT article states the President is contemplating.

These statements are found in the Senate-approved resolution of ratification accompanying New START. Specifically, Declaration 9 in the resolution states that any agreement or understanding that modifies, amends, or reinterprets New START should be submitted to the Senate for ratification. Declaration 11 states that any new nuclear arms reduction agreement beyond New START should likewise be subject to the treaty process and require Senate consent under the Constitution.

Whether or not President Obama proposes reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the State of the Union address, it remains highly likely that the President is going to make this proposal at some point. Regardless of timing, further U.S. nuclear arms reductions in the current context is at best misguided and at worst illegal.

Congress must find the means to resist the President’s attempt to reduce further the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A failure to do so will result in a U.S. strategic posture that will weaken deterrence and increase the risk of war. In this area, the stakes could not be higher.