Reducing the threat of Armageddon

President Obama achieved a major foreign policy goal in 2010 when he concluded the New START Treaty committing the U.S. and Russia to reduce the size of their long-range nuclear arsenals by a third within six years, to 1,550 warheads on each side. But as the president made clear in remarks at the time, even those cuts didn't go far enough. The world, he said, wouldn't be safe from the threat of these terrifying weapons until they were eliminated entirely.

It was to be expected that Mr. Obama's critics in Congress would dismiss such views as either wishful thinking or as dangerously naive. Yet the president got a powerful endorsements of his belief this week when Gen. James E. Cartwright, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the former commander of all U.S. nuclear forces, joined those calling for even deeper cuts in U.S. nuclear warheads than those required by the New START treaty Mr. Obama signed with Russia.

"The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War," the New York Times quoted General Cartwright as saying. "There is the baggage of significant numbers in reserve. There is the baggage of a nuclear stockpile beyond our needs. What is it we're really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century."

The general, whose long experience in this area lent added credibility to his argument, went on to list some of the reasons why sustaining an enormous arsenal of weapons we hope never to use can actually undermine rather than strengthen U.S. national security. The threat of a major nuclear exchange with Russia or China, he suggested, has receded to the point where a war with either of them is now more likely to start by accident than as the result of a deliberate attack. Thus, having thousands of weapons on hair-trigger alert would only compound such a mistake, with devastating consequences for both sides. The U.S., he argued, can safely deter those countries with far fewer long-range warheads on alert, on the order to 400 to 500 rather than the 2,200 deployed today.

Moreover, the size of our current arsenal makes it harder for us to persuade smaller nuclear powers such as India, Israel and Pakistan to restrain their nuclear programs. It strains the credibility of our arguments that rogue states like Iran and North Korea should unilaterally give up their weapons when we insist on maintaining huge stockpiles of our own, and it makes our efforts to prevent the spread of such weapons, at a time when the most immediate threat to our security comes from the possibility of a nuclear device falling into terrorists' hands, appear hypocritical and self-serving.

Mr. Obama clearly would like to be remembered by history as the president who led the world a step closer to the ultimate goal of complete nuclear disarmament. That goal may not be achievable today, nor for years to come. Yet humanity's future hinges on managing the risks posed by these terrible instruments of destruction, which for the first time in history have given our species the power to annihilate itself and all life on the planet. Any progress the president can make toward mitigating that danger would go far toward justifying the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded soon after taking office.

Mr. Obama made a start toward fulfilling the Nobel Committee's high expectations when he followed up the New START treaty with a thoroughgoing revamping of American nuclear strategy, announced last month, that substantially narrows the conditions under which the U.S. would use nuclear weapons. If Mr. Obama truly wishes to be remembered as a peacemaker, sharply reducing the number of such weapons in the U.S. arsenal — and encouraging other countries to do the same — should be one of the first orders of business for the remainder of his term in office.

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