The nuclear-arms race was at the heart of the Cold War. Each superpower constantly feared that the other might gain a jump on the other. The competition came to take on a life of its own, as the Soviet Union and United States fielded increasingly sophisticated and potent weapons systems.
In an attempt to slow and regulate the arms race-which many feared resembled the run-up to World War I, when Britain and Germany engaged in a naval-expansion competition-the Soviet Union and United States negotiated and signed a number of arms-control treaties. These treaties themselves became part of the battle over the Cold War in America. On the one side were liberals and conservative realists who argued that it was necessary to curb the growth of these fearsome weapons. On the other side were conservatives and neoconservatives who argued that any treaty with the Soviet Union was, by definition, capitulation to the forces of evil. Thus the SALT I Treaty negotiated by Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger was regarded with great suspicion by hawks. SALT II was never ratified, but Ronald Reagan, who condemned it on the campaign trail, adhered to its limits as president. Interestingly enough, Reagan, who truly feared nuclear weapons, ended up being the president who wound down the Cold War.
But antipathy towards arms-control treaties has lingered on. Even as conservatives such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Burt call for a move toward global zero-that is, the abolition of nuclear weapons-hawks are grousing about the Obama administration's pledge to sign a new START Treaty with the Kremlin. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is a case in point. It states that the treaty "at best does relatively little harm." But this is too niggardly. The treaty not only doesn't do harm, it also actually enhances American security by helping to reduce useless weaponry. A conflict between Russia and America is almost inconceivable. Cooperation between Moscow and Washington can help thaw the political freeze that took place over the past decade and ensure a warmer and more cooperative relationship.
The Journal also warns, "the Senate needs to ensure the new ceiling [on warheads] doesn't undermine the robust deterrent in the U.S. nuclear triad-long-range bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles." Given that the United States wields a nuclear force that no foe would want to attack, its hard to imagine that its deterrent could be much more robust, even if, as under the START Treaty, it goes to eight hundred nuclear delivery vehicles.
The Journal frets that the treaty will somehow permit Moscow to hold a de facto veto over American anti-ballistic missile plans. But this is mere quibbling. The United States has all along made it clear that anti-missile defense will continue to be worked on. The program that the Obama administration shut down in Central Europe was an expensive and uncertain proposition. Finally, the Journal asserts that "faith-based nonproliferation flies in the face of history. As the U.S. and Russia have drawn down their arsenals the past two decades, the rogues have moved fast to build up theirs." But would the converse have been true? Had America built even more missiles, would North Korea or Iran desist from their nuclear programs? Hardly. Instead, it was the Iraq War which likely hardened the Iranian conviction that the regime needed a weapon-or the threat of a weapon-to serve as a true deterrent. As the United States and Russia divest themselves of nuclear weapons, their actions will further isolate Iran.
But none of this may be enough. As Danielle Pletka correctly points out in the Journal, sanctions aren't working, either. Pletaka concludes, "as the failure of Mr. Obama's Iran policy becomes manifest to all but the president, we drift toward war." But do we? George W. Bush had no appetite for war with Iran. There's scant evidence that Obama does, either.
Iran will need to be held in check. World War I began because, as A.J.P. Taylor put it, the deterrent failed to deter. Which is why reductions in nuclear weapons are desirable for Washington and Moscow, but abolition is not.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.