Thursday, March 25, 2010

Still Trust But Verify

The Obama administration will sign a strategic arms limitation treaty with Russia:

The new agreement to reduce long-range nuclear weapons would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired in December. An important feature of the new deal is that it includes a legal mechanism for verifying that each side complies — an element that was absent from a 2002 deal, known as the Moscow Treaty, that accelerated the weapons reductions laid out in the 1991 treaty.

The Moscow Treaty set limits on both sides' strategic nuclear warheads at between 1,700 and 2,200. The new deal, whose provisions have not been made public, is expected to lower that to about 1,500. It also would reduce the permissible number of strategic launchers — the missiles and bombs that deliver warheads to their targets.

Verification will be the key to getting Senate approval. I assume nobody thinks that judging Medvedev's or--God fobid--Putin's soul status is enough.

While I'm certainly on record as judging that, given our conventional military superiority, we'd be better off in a world with no nuclear weapons; in practice I don't think we can ever afford to give up our nukes since I don't trust many governments to live up to any deal to eliminate all their weapons--or the ability to assemble one in hours or days from non-weapon components.

Missile defense is our insurance policy against the risks of going lower than we will agree to with this agreement, but even missile defenses don't give me the confidence to go without a significant number of nuclear weapons.

But I do hope that our verification concerns are addressed in the treaty and not in a nebulous "annex" that we are working on still, and which Russia may or may not consider important as a practical matter.