Two things happened earlier this week that have very little to do with each other in reality but are nevertheless being tied together in the media and official commentary. First, on Monday the New York Times reported that the Obama administration was likely to press for a cut in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to “just above 1,000” deployed strategic nuclear warheads. This would represent a reduction of about a third from the limit of 1,550 set by the New START agreement.
Second, the following day North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. It didn’t take long for opponents of the rumored nuclear reductions to seize on the news as a reason to argue against them. As Senator John Hoeven said in a statement:
North Korea’s nuclear test today poses a threat to the United States and our allies, and underscores the need for the United States to maintain its strong deterrent capabilities. Yet now, even before implementing the reductions required under the New START Treaty of 2010, the Obama administration has signaled that it may be willing to reduce unilaterally the U.S. nuclear capability even further. In light of North Korea’s actions today, this is clearly not the time to diminish these critical strategic forces.
Leave aside the fact that it’s far from clear that Obama wants to undertake these cuts “unilaterally,” as Hoeven says. (The Times article reports that the administration’s preferred option would be to make them through an “informal agreement” with Russia “within the framework” of New START.) Even if the reductions were to be made unilaterally, there is no conceivable military mission that the United States could have vis-à-vis North Korea that could not be completed with 1,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. To the extent that the U.S. nuclear arsenal needs to be sized against another nation, that country is Russia, not North Korea. Washington and Moscow both maintain stockpiles of thousands of nuclear weapons, which are far greater than those of any other nation. In contrast, North Korea, according to estimates, has less than ten. Tuesday’s test does not change that basic calculus. To argue that it does, and that North Korea’s test should forestall any U.S. nuclear reductions, is the geopolitical equivalent of giving Pyongyang a “heckler’s veto” over our security policies.
The debate over how many nuclear weapons the United States should maintain in order to provide for its security is a complicated one. But one thing is clear: whatever the optimal number is, the way in which we go about determining it should have absolutely nothing to do with North Korea.