Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Those of us who followed the great arms control debates of the 1970's and 1980's are getting a sense of deja vu as the latest arms control treaty faces strong opposition to ratification in the Senate.  Some of the arguments are the same, but the debate still seems to attract only a shadow of the passion that arms control treaties used to provoke.  One difference, of course, is that Russia is no longer seen as the enemy.  Another difference is that right wing opposition to arms control agreements has died down, after Ronald Reagan became a convert to the cause of nuclear arms reduction, and an eager partner of the Soviet Union in attempting to achieve drastic reductions in nuclear arsenals.  Yet there are still opponents of the latest treaty, who raise the same tired arguments about whether it would unduly hamper our defense plans, or whether we can trust our treaty partners.  These opponents sound like they still live in a bygone world.

I've been reading The Dead Hand, which tells the story of the end of the US/Soviet nuclear arms race in the 1980's, yet makes clear that the dangers of these weapons have not disappeared.  It turns out that the Soviet Union was actually building, in the 1980's, a version of the Doomsday device that was featured in the movie Dr. Strangelove from the 1960's.  Technology marches on, but we adjust too slowly.  As a result, the systems we designed decades ago still have the power to destroy us, even after we think the danger has passed.

Failure to ratify the new START treaty would allow the Dead Hand to continue to rule us.  If we don't move forward on arms control, favored by an overwhelming majority of the public, we would allow tired old debates that no longer have any real meaning, to dictate reality in a much different world.  We would allow partisan politics to prevent action favored by a strong consensus of defense and foreign policy experts.  We would allow one stubborn Senator, aided by a willing bloc of obstructionist colleagues, to hold up progress on a range of issues considered important to international relations, and to our own defense.  Are we smart enough to move beyond partisan politics and outdated debates to achieve progress on reducing unnecessary and dangerous nuclear arms?


  1. We cannot have our hands tied regarding missile defense. Period.

  2. Harrison, if I were to give you the choice between obliteration of all of human civilization vs. having our hands tied a tiny little bit, I presume you would still say you would prefer obliteration of all of human civilization. And if you say that is not a fair choice, I would say, well then what do you mean by "period"? To me, "period" means that any alternative I could suggest would be better than having our hands tied. Otherwise you have to admit that you might prefer a bit of hand tying if the alternative were worse. Which means it's not "period."

  3. What if the alternative to having our hands tied a bit makes the world less safe? Some might argue that missile defense reduces the risk of obliteration of all of human civilization. It's not black or white.

  4. Senator Lugar thinks new START will make us safer. Henry Kissinger thinks it will make us safer. Defense Secretary Gates thinks it will make us safer. Condaleeza Rice, George Schultz, and James Baker all think it will make us safer. The Joint Chiefs think it will make us safer. But you have some different information that tells you that we would be better off with no treaty? Are you like the big blue guy in the Watchmen who can make us safe without having to trust the Russians? Sometimes it is just tiresome to argue with you guys.

  5. "the big blue guy in the Watchmen who can make us safe without having to trust the Russians?"

    Amigo! Love it! Great answer. No, I don't have any special information. That's why I read your blog. I just keep trying to learn as much as possible. It is tough to sift through it all. Thanks for helping. Keep On Truckin' ...

  6. Joe, not signing the treaty will not make the world less safe. Our threats today are from terrorists, Iran, North Korea, etc. SDI has proven itself to be a valuable tool in protecting this country. I do not favor anything that places an limitations on it. Period.

    You sound like Dick Cheney when he said dunking KSM into some water and saving lives was a choice or letting innocent people die.

  7. It's interesting that you think that SDI has proven to be a valuable tool in protecting this country, considering that it has never even been deployed. Strategic missile defense has mainly been a research project that has cost us hundreds of billions of dollars, with little discernible effect. If anything, it should serve as one of the best examples of wasteful government spending.

  8. Joe, SDI is part of the reason the Soviets gave up the ghost... they couldn't spend the money to compete with it. It was also a powerful negotiating tool.

    And you could use the same logic to say that having locks on your doors and windows is a waste of money and does no good if nobody tries to break in because those locks have never been "tested."

    Lastly, I am not worried about Russia launching nukes at the U.S. I don't think anybody else is, either. And even if they cut their missiles from 700 to 400 we'd all still die anyway.

  9. I think there is some truth to the idea that the threat of SDI forced the Soviet Union to the table on arms control, although they did have a plan to implement countermeasures to SDI. But if SDI was also supposed to be just a negotiating tool, then Reagan blew the opportunity to use SDI as a bargaining chip at Reykjavik. He could have put both countries on a path to total nuclear disarmament if he had only agreed to keep Star Wars development in the laboratory. But instead he was intent to deploying this system.

    SDI is not like untested locks on the doors. If I install a lock, I know that it will prevent some break-in attempts but the lock might still be vulnerable to being picked or being destroyed. In the case of SDI, not only do we know that it will not prevent all missiles from getting through, but we have not even deployed any version of it that would even have a chance of preventing missiles from getting through.

    In the meantime we still have all these hundreds of nuclear weapons around, and we have been talking about getting rid of them for more than 20 years, but seem to lack the political will to do so. I agree that Russia is not planning to launch them at us, but Murphy's law says that if they exist, at least one of them is going to go off sometime. That's why it is sad that when a reasonable treaty comes to the Senate, approved by all the leading experts, that will make substantial progress toward reducing nuclear weapons, people start looking for reasons to oppose it, often for political reasons.

  10. There have been numerous tests of SDI and almost all have proved successful. With N. Korea having nukes and missiles, Iran having missiles and nukes soon, not to mention the errant nuke from Russia, SDI makes more and more sense.

    As you say, a lock on your window will not prevent all break-ins but it will stop most. The same is true, in my opinion, with SDI.

    I'm not against an arms control treaty... as long as it doesn't limit SDI. There is no reason to tie our hands in the future.

    I'm sure there are some people who just want to deny the president the PR of signing a treaty, and those people are wrong. But I've read that the treaty would limit us in other areas as I've said.