Stop at Start


New York Times
February 19, 2010

IN his speech Wednesday at the National Defense University here, Vice  
President Joe Biden opened a new offensive in the administration's war  
on nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. One near-term  
objective is completion and ratification of a new Strategic Arms  
Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia. But the  
ultimate goal, he said, remained the peace and security of a world  
without nuclear weapons.

In the absence of a roadmap from a Start accord to global zero, one  
can only assume that Mr. Biden meant the continued pursuit of similar,  
incremental arms control agreements. But piecemeal control efforts  
will never work; we have to think more boldly if we are to achieve  
global nuclear disarmament.

The idea of achieving nuclear zero through arms control agreements is  
nothing new. It has been pursued for nearly 50 years, and it's a tough  
slog, practically and politically. Indeed, such agreements take so  
long to negotiate and require so much political capital that  
presidents rarely achieve more than one. I should know: as a midlevel  
State Department official in 1979, I spent six months trying to  
persuade Midwestern voters to support that era?s arms-control  
proposal, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, known as SALT II.  
Wherever I went, I encountered opponents. Some were against specific  
provisions; many simply opposed any limit on American power, or wanted  
to deal a blow to the Carter administration.

Most people recognized that SALT II was just another baby step toward  
halting the arms race and did little to ease nuclear dangers. The  
United States and the Soviet Union together possessed more than 50,000  
nuclear weapons; the treaty would have barely dented their arsenals.  
If nuclear war began, we all would have been just as dead, regardless  

But the problem isn?t just American politics. Piecemeal agreements  
between two nuclear powers to reduce, but not eliminate, their atomic  
inventories are insufficient; as the United States and Russia  
leisurely reduce their stocks, other states are building up arsenals,  
and still others are gaining the technical skills to advance their own  
programs. Since 1993, when the United States and Russia signed the  
last formal arms control treaty, Start II (which was never fully  
ratified), India, North Korea and Pakistan have joined the nuclear  
club, and Iran may follow soon.

Accelerating nuclear proliferation and terrorist attacks have led  
diplomats worldwide to embrace disarmament as a long-term goal. At the  
same time, they say it is unrealistic to pursue zero weapons in the  
near term.

Fortunately, that?s not true. The technical expertise necessary for  
air-tight verification has already been developed through past  
agreements and international supervision of the countries that have  
relinquished nuclear programs. International precedents already exist  
for virtually every procedure necessary to eliminate nuclear weapons  
safely, verifiably and without risk to any nation?s security.

Here?s how a global nuclear disarmament treaty could work. First, it  
would spell out a decades-long schedule for the verified destruction  
of all weapons, materials and facilities. Those possessing the largest  
arsenals - the United States and Russia - would make deep cuts first.  
Those with smaller arsenals would join at specified dates and levels.  
To ensure that no state gained an advantage, the treaty would  
incorporate "rest stops": if a state refused to comply with a  
scheduled measure, other nations' reductions would be suspended until  
the violation was corrected. This dynamic would generate momentum, but  
also ensure that if the effort collapsed, the signatories would be no  
less secure than before.

Critics cite cheating as the main reason to dismiss disarmament,  
ignoring that, even without cooperative verification, American  
intelligence has detected every past national effort to develop  
nuclear weapons before those weapons became operational. Furthermore,  
elimination is simpler to verify than any reduction in the number of  
warheads. In a disarmament regime, the entirety of the nuclear complex  
would be monitored, shielding nothing from inspectors' eyes. Discovery  
of a single warhead or kilogram of fissile material in an undeclared  
location would blow the whistle.

Moreover, an international verification organization, akin to the  
International Atomic Energy Agency, would have the authority to  
inspect any site in every country at any time. In addition to routine  
monitoring, inspections would be prompted by tips from national  
intelligence agencies, a procedure incorporated into three prior  

Just as important as detecting cheating is enforcement. To avoid the  
Security Council?s endless deadlocks, the treaty could establish its  
own means of enforcement. For the most serious violations, a  
supermajority of signatories would authorize the collective use of  
military force to destroy offending sites and even to dislodge the  
regime and bring violating officials to trial. The 2007 Israeli  
destruction of an illicit Syrian reactor demonstrated the  
effectiveness of conventional military strikes in stymieing secret  
attempts to acquire a nuclear capacity.

Of course, in the event that a great power chose to opt out of the  
treaty and rebuild its arsenal, collective military action would be  
unlikely. But at worst, such a shift would just return us to the  
status quo ante - the other powers could just as promptly rebuild  
their own nuclear arsenals, netting the cheat nothing but the world's  
enmity. (Experts agree that the United States could restock its  
nuclear inventory in as little as six months.)

This isn?t to say that completing and ratifying the new Start  
agreement is not a good idea: the talks and subsequent verification  
measures are central to relations between the United States and  
Russia, and a treaty would reduce operational warheads on long-range  
missiles and bombers by more than one-fourth. The question is what to  
do next. Another Start is not the answer. A comprehensive agreement  
for phased, verified reductions to nuclear zero is not only feasible,  
but far less risky than the ineffective path we have been on for so  

Barry Blechman, a fellow at the Stimson Center, a national security  
policy institute, is the co-editor of "Elements of a Nuclear  
Disarmament Treaty."