Rating Presidents By Nuke Reductions

1 Sep

Estimated US-Russian Nuclear Warhead Inventories, 1977-2018 (Arms Control Wonk) Who’s your favorite nuke-cutting president?

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama vocalized their vision of a world without nuclear weapons – Carter in his inaugural address, no less – but they, like President Bill Clinton, have been cautious incrementalists on nuclear matters. President Reagan, in stark contrast, demonstrated massive disregard for nuclear orthodoxy. George H.W. Bush signed off on two strategic arms reduction treaties and wisely undertook unverifiable initiatives to reduce nonstrategic nuclear weapons, rather than try to pursue this objective by means of a treaty. Even George W. Bush, whose idea of a reasonable strategic arms reduction treaty was one that would come into effect the same day it was set to expire, oversaw a quiet, hard trim of the U.S. stockpile. The record since 1977 clearly demonstrates that both parties have worked to shrink nuclear forces and stockpiles, but Republican Presidents have had more leeway to do so than Democrats.

Now for the caveats: President Reagan was sui generis – an anti-nuclear, anti-Communist President, who was uniquely able to quiet second-guessers. President George H.W. Bush was the beneficiary of Reagan’s openings. After initial hesitation, he grabbed with both hands opportunities presented by the demise of the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear stockpiles. President George W. Bush had far more excess to trim than President Obama.

Looking ahead, deep cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear forces will be harder to accomplish in big steps, but are very likely to continue in smaller increments over the long haul. One reason is economics. Another is the progressive weakening of key constituencies in the United States that favor larger numbers and strategic modernization programs. A third is that Russia has still not recovered from the loss of infrastructure that supported the Soviet Union’s strategic modernization programs.

Reductions will become less dramatic and on the margins now, because the low-hanging fruit, like Russia, have agreed, that not challenging the status quo and reducing its confrontational posture are good for it and the world. Now, it’s regional players, like North Korea, that will feature prominently. And, as a commenter argues, the GOP’s still evident edge in pro-military credentials will tie reductions to elections. I have to think, that the defense industry itself will not let the nuclear slip too far into oblivion, either.

Finally, as overall numbers dwindle, the strategic implications will start to matter. The calculus between conventional and nuclear deterrence will begin to favor accumulators over abolitionists.

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