“Reciprocal unilateral measures” is not my favorite phrase, despite my rather considerable affection for some of the people who have made use of it. There is nothing wrong with the concept, mind you, but RUMs? Ugh.
The term is back in our discourse, thanks to the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), which has prepared an an otherwise sensible draft report on Options for Implementing Additional Nuclear Force Reductions.
My complaint with RUMs is equal parts pedantic, political and substantive. SInce this is just a draft report, consider this an open letter to the ISAB to drop a term that mars an otherwise elegant idea.
First, the pedantry. Here are some definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary
[Reciprocal] Of the nature of, or relating to, a return (in kind); made, given, etc., in response; answering, corresponding.
[Unilateral] Law. Made or entered upon by one party, esp. without reciprocal obligation on the part of another or others; binding or imposed upon one party only.
The definition of unilateral is “without reciprocal obligation” — at best, “reciprocal unilateral” is nonsense. It has no meaning and, at worst, obscures what the ISAB is really proposing.
Second, the politics of “reciprocal unilateral measures” are terrible. The President’s political opponents believe that “unilateral disarmament” is a useful talking point. Of course, these same people are above simply making up quotes and attributing them to President. But I see no reason to make their job easier, especially when …
… Third, the ISAB is not proposing unilateral measures. What the ISAB is recommending is reciprocal reductions without a formal agreement. We make international commitments all the time outside of formal treaties.
The obvious historical precedent, and the one that the ISAB references, is the series of Presidential Nuclear Initiatives begun by George H.W. Bush in the wake of the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and reciprocated by Gorby and Boris Yeltsin. Note that Bush had the good sense to call it a Presidential, not unilateral, Nuclear Initiative. That is a nice bit of branding, evoking more Churchill than Chamberlain. It is important to recall why the Bush Administration opted for moving forward on reductions without a treaty. After the failed coup, Bush wanted to act fast to secure reciprocal commitments from the Soviet Union — while Gorby was still around to make reciprocal commitments. Speed was of the essence!
Although the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev was an extreme event, there are other, less dire cases in which a President may still wish to act without waiting for a formal arms control treaty. When the Russian Duma began dragging its feet on ratifying the START II treaty, a number of my colleagues in the arms control community proposed a series of “parallel, reciprocal, and verifiable steps” hoping to resolve the impasse. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the Jump START proposal, doing nothing doomed START II.
The ISAB report makes an elegant argument that the impending development of a new heavy Russian ICBM is an issue that is too urgent to await the outcome of whatever comes after New START:
Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal is expected to dive beneath New START’s ceilings of 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles and 1,550 operationally deployed strategic warheads as its nuclear forces reach the end of their service lives – dropping to an estimated 400 delivery vehicles and 1,100 accountable warheads by 2020.12 To build back up to treaty limits, Russia is considering developing a new heavy ICBM in its nuclear modernization plans. In contrast, the United States is expected to proceed slowly down to treaty limits, downloading warheads from ICBMs and SLBMs and reducing the launchers while modernizing its strategic forces.
The United States could communicate to Russia that the United States is prepared to go to lower levels of nuclear weapons as a matter of national policy, consistent with the strategy developed in the Nuclear Posture Review, if Russia is willing to reciprocate. This could improve stability by reducing Russia’s incentive to build a new heavy ICBM.
I was really struck by this argument. I wonder, however, if the description is too elliptical for some readers. Allow me to explain a bit.
Russia has announced a new heavy ICBM that is to be liquid fueled and will carry as many as 10 warheads. Ten warheads in a silo is a pretty juicy target. If the Russians don’t use this weapon first, they won’t be using it at all. Now, I do not think Moscow intends the new heavy ICBM as part of some strategy to fight and win a nuclear war, but I do worry about the adverse incentives they are creating for themselves.
Why Russia thinks the solution to its strategic rot is a new, vulnerable ICBM armed with a disproportionate share of the country’s nuclear weapons is beyond me. There are probably many reasons Russia is building a new ICBM, most of which have to do with bureaucratic and political concerns. But Alexei Arbatov observes that the overt justification for the new heavy ICBM is that otherwise Moscow will struggle to maintain New START levels as the last generation of Soviet-era strategic systems begin to age out. We would do well to do something about this argument.
This brings us to reciprocal commitments outside a formal arms control agreement. The Russian government is in the process of awarding contracts for the new heavy ICBM, contracts that will create momentum behind the new missile.
If we wait for the formal arms control process, we may wait several years — by which time, Russia will be deploying the missile in earnest. Russian leaders will be loathe to negotiate away missiles that have just been built, so we’ll be stuck at current force levels indefinitely, just with a much less stable force structure.
So, no time like the present! A commitment to further reduce the number of US deployed nuclear weapons would certainly be worth making if it was likely to induce a reciprocal commitment by Russia to forgo a new heavy ICBM. This is a very good idea, one that deserves a better name RUM.
Late Update | 10:36 am PST 29 August 2012 A colleague at the State Department asked me to remove the link to the draft report. I complied because they provided the reports to me when I asked with no hassle and then asked nicely about removing the link. That said, the report is still available from Inside Defense. I am also happy to provide copies on request.