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Ronald Reagan, missile defense, and the end of nuclear weapons

My friend and occasional nemesis Julie Ponzi on Thursday posted an argument against the Obama Administration sharing missile defense technology with the Russians, suggesting that technology would end up in the wrong hands: "Whatever may be said about the "resetting" of relations with Russia, it remain cozy with nations--like Iran--that pose an unquestionable threat to U.S. security."

Me being snarky, I offered this rebuttal: "I remember when Ronald Reagan wanted to share "Star Wars" technology with the Soviets."

Julie didn't get mad. Instead, she sicced Reagan biographer Steven Hayward upon me. Steve concludes: "The circumstances today are vastly different that under the bipolar world of the US--USSR. I suspect Reagan today would share technology with allies against the rogues and not with Russia; he'd want partnerships with nations more reliable than Russia, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, who are keen to deploy our missile defenses."

You know what? I'll concede the point: Reagan was willing to make concessions on occasion, but it was in the service of increasing our security. In a multipolar world, the calculations are different, and Steve—well, Steve's a Reagan scholar. I'm not. I'll defer to his insights.

Instead, I'll change the subject.

I do think it's worth asking my conservative friends if there are any tradeoffs, any concessions they're willing to make that might look like a lowering of the guard but might actually increase overall American security. Part of President Obama's mission—it seems to me—is to reduce the overall number of warheads in the world. Not out of some Pollyanna belief in peace, and certainly not to leave the United States without security, but mostly out of a simple ability to do math: the more nukes there are in the world, the more likely it is that one of them falls into the wrong hand and is used in anger. That, in turn, creates a greater likelihood that a lot more of those warheads will be used. It's difficult for me to see how worldwide armaggedon would serve the security interests of the United States.

Yes, President Obama proposes to—eventually—eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. Ronald Reagan (just to keep this near the original topic) shared that dream—and though today's world is a less-predictable and thus in certain respects more dangerous, I will hazard a guess and suggest his horror of a nuclear holocaust would still be a motivating factor for him.

Right now, if I'm looking at the right reports, the United States has more than 5,000 nuclear warheads. Russia has 3,000. (These are very provisional numbers; estimates range widely.) It seems to me that we could reduce these numbers greatly, to just a few hundred on each side, and still retain both a meaningful deterrent and the ability to destroy all life on earth.

But we'd reduce the chances that a warhead would end up in those aforementioned wrong hands. We'd greatly reduce the costs of maintaining, modernizing, and protecting our arsenal. We would, it seems to me, be more secure.

Republican objections to the START Treaty have been couched in issues like missile defense, but my overall impression is that they don't buy into the logic I just laid out, believing instead that more! more! more! is the route to defensive superiority and security—or that President Obama (implausibly) is ready to give away the whole kit-and-kaboodle and leave us defenseless. But sometimes less is more.


Andrew said…
I like this new rhetorical tack you've taken for engaging with conservative: Obama has made them all totally crazy, so let's see if we can outline the boundaries of just *how* crazy. Your next question-y blog post should be: Conservatives believe women shouldn't have control over their bodies. What *should* women be allowed to have control over?

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