Arms Control Plus: What Reagan Got Right About Nuclear Deterrence

Arms Control Plus: What Reagan Got Right About Nuclear Deterrence

The nuclear challenges the United States faces today are every bit as daunting as they were in 1985, but there may indeed be lessons from Reagan’s Cold War experience that can adequately address them.

However, even if Russia abides by the New START levels and China does not exceed 1,000 overall strategic nuclear warheads, the imbalance facing the United States is more likely to be two-to-three-to-one against the United States.

Henry Kissinger once asked, “What in the name of God is strategic superiority? … What do you do with it?” During the 1970’s era of detente and peaceful coexistence, when the USSR thought it had nuclear superiority and believed that the “correlation of forces” favored Moscow, more than one dozen countries fell into the Soviet orbit—including Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan—as terrorism and aggression expanded. With the liberation of Grenada under the Reagan administration, it was the first time since 1917 that some portion of Soviet territory was liberated from the Soviet empire. Today, there is again concern that, as U.S. conventional legacy forces decline over the next decade as part of an effort to save resources for military modernization, a nuclear window of vulnerability may open vis-à-vis China and Russia.

Reagan’s 1985-86 approach to the strategic balance may be a good reference point for how U.S. policymakers should act today. This mixture of policies found success before and may do so again.

First, the United States prioritized strategic nuclear modernization.

Second, the United States took the moral high ground and pushed for major nuclear weapons reductions—the arms control ideas that initiated the successful START process.

Third, the United States increased its strategic and regional missile defense investments as a means of maintaining the strategic balance, protecting the U.S. homeland from rogue missile attacks, and giving the United States alternatives to nuclear conflict.

Fourth, the Reagan administration worked cooperatively and on a bipartisan basis with Congress.

And fifth, the United States worked with its NATO and Asian Pacific allies in deploying the required forces to balance Soviet deployments, particularly the SS-20 ballistic missile.

The pursuit of robust nuclear modernization, stabilizing arms agreements, nonproliferation policies among rogue states like North Korea and Iran, and cooperation with U.S. allies may be the right combination for U.S. policy in the twenty-first century. The nuclear challenges the United States faces today are every bit as daunting as they were in 1985, but there may indeed be lessons from Reagan’s Cold War experience that can adequately address them.

Peter Huessy is Senior Defense Fellow at the Huson Institute and President of Geostrategic Analysis. These views are his own.

Image: Flickr.