The Doomsday Gap

Originally published here.

Last week marked the sixty-fourth anniversary of one of the most controversial achievements of the human race: the birth of the atomic bomb. Regardless of your personal feelings about the effect of nuclear weaponry on the outcome of the Second World War, it is impossible to argue otherwise: once the nuclear genie was out of the bottle, the world was a completely different place.

One of the most fascinating symbols of the nuclear age is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock”, which:

… conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction–the figurative midnight–and monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm.

It was first used on the magazine’s cover in 1947; the timeline is a qualitative indicator of our potential to destroy ourselves, and how various leaders have influenced that over the years.

For conservatives, the Doomsday Clock got stuck somewhere in the 1980s. This became painfully obvious in their commentary leading up to, and directly after, President Obama’s July 6, 2009 meeting with Russian President Medvedev in Moscow to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which I wrote about here.

Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) and arch-neocon Richard Perle led the pre-emptive strike a week before the Moscow summit with an op-ed piece they published in the Wall Street Journal. Not surprisingly, they misrepresent Obama’s goals as well as set up a variety of strawman arguments, which are nicely pointed out here. Among other things, they argue against ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and try to make the case for new nuclear weapons, all the while saying that reducing our strategic nuclear weapons won’t have any effect on proliferation elsewhere in the world.

David Shorr at Democracy Arsenal points out that the US and Russia really have no choice but to reduce the size of their arsenals, and that the effect on other potential nuclear powers would be anything but what Kyl and Perle are trying to say. He believes:

  • that disarmament moves by the nuclear ‘haves’ will serve the ball into their court, lessening US policy as the topic of focus in nonproliferation diplomacy and putting the spotlight squarely on the nuclear wannabes
  • that living up to our end of the bargain will give us a strong argument to draw greater international support and increased pressure on Iran and North Korea
  • that no regime is immune to outside pressure and that such regimes have countervailing interests that weigh against building nuclear arsenals (otherwise there wouldn’t be such a hot debate in Iran over relations with the West)
  • that moral authority must be combined with tough diplomacy and the remote but implicit threat of hard (conventional armed) power
  • that we have many times more nuclear weapons than can be reasonably justified
  • and that taking a hard line — preserving military strength regardless of strategic rationale, issuing demands rather than bargaining hard over possible solutions – makes even less of an impact and offers zero possibility of inducing cooperation.

Shorr also links to a number of other op-ed pieces, including one painfully Reaganesque yawner penned by Charles Krauthammer upon the conclusion of the Moscow summit. The crux of his argument?

Obama’s hunger for a diplomatic success, such as it is, allowed the Russians to exact a price: linkage between offensive and defensive nuclear weapons. This is important for Russia because of the huge American technological advantage in defensive weaponry. We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile. They cannot. And since defensive weaponry will be the decisive strategic factor of the 21st century, Russia has striven mightily for a quarter-century to halt its development.

Peter Scoblic at The New Republic responded (emphasis mine):

I’m not sure what’s weirder about this line of reasoning: the implication that we remain in some kind of cold war-style arms race with Russia, or the notion that, if we were, we could win. Despite strained relations over Georgia and other issues, I think it’s clear that the cold war is over–indeed, this has been one of the primary conservative arguments against pursuing further arms control agreements over the past 20 years. Given, however, that the Obama administration is not only shrinking the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but also is hoping to negotiate or ratify a variety of other accords to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international politics, it’s worth dissecting the flaws in Krauthammer’s argument.

The linkage between offense and defense in nuclear arms is hardly a concession ginned up by the Obama administration to appease the Russians. In fact, the linkage isn’t a policy decision at all. It’s an inescapable function of the incredibly destructive nature of nuclear weapons themselves–a conclusion that Robert McNamara, among others, came to nearly half a century ago.

The European missile defense shield is an important subject for discussion, since it is definitely a huge issue for Russia; I’m going to address that in a separate post. What is critical to note at this point is that Krauthammer and his friends just can’t seem to get out of the Cold War mindset. Scoblic continues and says:

I have no idea what [Krauthammer] means when he writes that missile defenses will be the decisive strategic weapons of the 21st century vis-à-vis Russia. Everything we learned during the cold war demonstrates that there is no such thing as strategic decisiveness when it comes to nuclear weapons–there is balance; and there is danger. If we were ever to build missile defenses that actually threatened Russia’s deterrent capability–say, by deploying a system with hundreds, instead of tens, of interceptors–Russia would simply build more nuclear weapons. If we tried to counter that increase with more defenses, Russia would counter with more offenses. And even if we “got ahead” in this offense-defense race, there would never be a point at which we had a 100 percent effective defense, meaning that if there were a nuclear exchange, the United States would quickly cease to be. Defenses would never be strategically decisive, but it’s always possible that Russia might fear they were–which would just destabilize our relationship. Does this sound familiar? It was exactly the problem we faced during the cold war, and frankly I’m not sure why we should have the discussion again.

Definitely read the rest of his column. It’s a good one.

Unsurprisingly, Kyl isn’t the only GOP senator who’s going to get in Obama’s way over START. A number of GOP lawmakers (Graham, Vitter, and Sessions, among others) want to link START to both missile defense as well as stockpile modernization:

Despite progress by U.S. and Russian leaders this week toward a new nuclear arms reduction treaty, it appears less and less likely that the Senate will ratify any agreement signed by the two governments before the end of the year.

In the face of GOP Senate calls for other issues to be addressed along with any agreement that would replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires Dec. 5, Democratic leaders acknowledge that Senate approval might not be possible this year — and also might not be necessary.


Republican Senate resistance to a new treaty is centered on two issues. Many GOP senators believe that a plan for modernization of the nuclear stockpile and a renewed commitment to build missile defense sites in eastern Europe must accompany any reduction in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The Obama administration’s position is that those two issues are now being studied — the modernization plan as part of the Nuclear Posture Review and the missile defense sites in the Quadrennial Defense Review — but will be considered in some fashion as part of the START negotiations.

The Senate Democrats’ position is that the issues should not be linked, and I agree; I’ll discuss this more next week.

In any case, you can bet that the points Kyl and Perle make in their column will be the talking points we’ll hear over and over again while START is being negotiated. Nothing has changed; in 1987, Perle said:

“The foolishness of a nuclear-free world is in no way mitigated by the conditions that Western statesmen routinely attach to its achievement in order to avoid dismissing the idea as the empty propaganda that it is,”

Mr. Perle, no one is saying that we’re going to unilaterally disarm. No one said it then, and no one is saying it now.

The “Party of No” is stuck in the past, seeing the phantoms of a Cold War enemy that no longer exist, and projecting them onto the very different security challenges of today. At the end of his excellent book Us vs. Them, Peter Scoblic has a recommendation for US policy:

… Stop seeing the world in terms of us versus them, good versus evil, with the attendant view that we must eschew coexistence, containment, and negotiation. This approach does not work, in large part because it does not reflect reality: The United States cannot stand apart from the world in the twenty-first century, if it ever could.

That’s good advice. I strongly suggest the GOP consider it.

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