On April 8, sitting beside each other in Prague Castle, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Just two days earlier, the Obama administration had issued its Nuclear Posture Review, only the third such comprehensive assessment of the United States' nuclear strategy. And in May, as a gesture of openness at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York, the U.S. government took the remarkable step of making public the size of its nuclear stockpile, which as of September 2009 totaled 5,113 warheads.
For proponents of eliminating nuclear weapons, these events elicited both a nod and a sigh. On the one hand, they represented renewed engagement by Washington and Moscow on arms control, a step toward, as the treaty put it, "the historic goal of freeing humanity from the nuclear threat." On the other hand, they stopped short of fundamentally changing the Cold War face of deterrence.
The New START agreement did not reduce the amount of "overkill" in either country's arsenal. Nor did it alter another important characteristic of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals: their launch-ready alert postures. The two countries' nuclear command, control, and communication systems, and sizable portions of their weapon systems, will still be poised for "launch on warning" -- ready to execute a mass firing of missiles before the quickest of potential enemy attacks could be carried out. This rapid-fire posture carries with it the risk of a launch in response to a false alarm resulting from human or technical error or even a malicious, unauthorized launch. Thus, under the New START treaty, the United States and Russia remain ready to inflict apocalyptic devastation in a nuclear exchange that would cause millions of casualties and wreak unfathomable environmental ruin.
In the next round of arms control negotiations, Washington and Moscow need to pursue much deeper cuts in their nuclear stockpiles and agree to a lower level of launch readiness. These steps would help put the world on a path to the elimination of nuclear weapons -- "global zero." And they can be taken while still maintaining a stable relationship of mutual deterrence between the United States and Russia, based on a credible threat of retaliation, and while allowing limited but adequate missile defenses against nuclear proliferators such as Iran and North Korea.
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