Atomic Amnesia: Hey GOP Congress, Don't Forget about America's Nuclear Arsenal

Where nuclear weapons are concerned, a GOP Congress and a Democratic president are likely to leave things right where they are: without any clear direction.

The 2014 midterms are over, and the Republicans have ridden a second “wave” election—unprecedented in modern U.S. political history—into legislative power. When it comes to the future of America’s nuclear deterrent, will it matter? The answer is almost certainly “no.” And that’s unfortunate, because the Republican takeover of the Senate, ironically, means there might be room for significant progress on nuclear issues.

“There is an old Vulcan proverb,” Star Trek’s Spock told his captain when advising him to make peace with an adversary. “Only Nixon can go to China.” As it is in the interstellar Federation, so it is in American politics. This is the rule of opposites, in which only conservative politicians can tackle the reform of national defense (think of George H.W. Bush unilaterally slashing nuclear inventories in 1992), while liberal politicians have the edge in reforming domestic programs and entitlements (such as Bill Clinton’s efforts at welfare reform in 1994).           

Where nuclear weapons are concerned, a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are likely to leave things right where they are: without a clear direction, without a strategy and without any budgetary logic. Republicans, who barely tolerated the New START Treaty (passed after the first midterm thrashing taken by the Democrats in 2010), are unlikely to countenance any further changes in a nuclear establishment they believe has been cut too fast and too deeply; as it was, President Obama had to fight tooth and nail to pass a treaty that should have taken a matter of minutes on a voice vote. Democrats, for their part, have no popular constituency for changes to U.S. nuclear policy outside of the arms-control community.

This isn’t the place to get into the question of why the Republicans won the midterms. Elections, especially midterm elections, are about many things, and national defense is rarely among the top issues. But politics do matter: when the president’s party loses over sixty seats, as in the 2010 midterm, the first thought that engages the Senate leader of the opposite party is not how best to help the White House pass a legacy item like an arms treaty. Likewise, the election this time of a new class of Senators (including at least two veterans who are hawkish on defense issues) is not likely to be taken by the new majority as the signal for deep cuts in nuclear arms.

So when, and how, will things change? Reform is not impossible: New START was passed when a few Republicans—none of whom could be called soft on defense—broke ranks and decided to support the treaty. It is possible that with Republicans in control of key Senate committees, it might actually be easier to find legislators who could shepherd through items that should not be controversial, giving both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue the chance to show bipartisan cooperation on national defense.

When the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the White House, dramatic reform of nuclear strategy was too easy to paint as nothing more than a liberal president leading a unilateral disarming of the U.S. deterrent with the agreement of compliant members of his own party. Today, Republicans may be more likely to trust other conservatives on these issues, just as Democrats tend to trust other members of their party more (again, as a general rule) on change in domestic affairs.

Here are three opportunities to consider.

First, a comprehensive test-ban treaty could provide fertile ground for a common effort between Congress and the White House. The United States hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon since the end of the Cold War, and doesn’t need to test any others. (I think we’re all fairly sure the ones we have will go off if need be.) The fact of the matter is that we are already observing a functional test ban, and have been through three administrations. Unfortunately, for political reasons—again, including the lack of a constituency and the mistaken over-identification of treaties with one party and bombs with another—the ban has never been ratified. So why not simply formalize what we’ve been doing for two decades?

Second, it is long past time for the United States to declare a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, in which we affirm that we will never be the first to employ nuclear arms in any military conflict. During the Cold War, when the United States and NATO were faced with overwhelming Soviet superiority in Europe, such a pledge would have been madness; indeed, our vow to Moscow was that any Soviet invasion would force NATO to use nuclear weapons first, because we would have no choice. Today, however, there is no similar danger to NATO—despite the ridiculous bluster of Russian president Vladimir Putin—and there is no reason for the United States or its leaders, Democrat or Republican, to adhere to a declaratory policy formed in the 1950s.