Twenty five years ago, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland, and nearly agreed to eliminate their entire nuclear weapons arsenals. The summit foundered when the United States would not agree to research and development only of the Strategic Defense Initiative, without testing the system in space. Secretary of State George Schultz and others urged Reagan to accept the Soviet Union’s historic concessions, but the advisor Richard Perle argued against any limitations on the initiative and prevailed. Although everyone left Reykjavik empty-handed, Gorbachev predicted, “This is the end of the cold war.”
If only it had been. The cold war is alive and well in the defense budgets being discussed in Congress, particularly in the so-called supercommittee budget. Twenty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, and in a period of struggle with a poor economy, the United States is still spending exorbitant sums on cold-war nuclear weapons artifacts. As the price for the Republican votes needed to ratify the New Start treaty, Senator John Kyle, Republican of Arizona, demanded and received $85 billion to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The administration is planning to spend $125 billion to build a new generation of delivery systems for strategic nuclear weapons over the triad of land, air and sea. This will include a new long-range bomber (possibly a drone capable of delivering a nuclear payload) and a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, 12 new ballistic missile submarines, a new intercontinental ballistic missile and updated Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles, plus $88 billion to build two major new nuclear facilities. While these are presented as 10-year budget numbers, the real costs will be much higher. No new weapons systems or defense facilities ever come in under budget.
These proposals go in exactly the wrong direction. Instead of increasing our spending on nuclear arsenals, we should be decreasing our spending, reducing our arsenals and re-evaluating the triad. The number of poor Americans is at an all-time high. Now is the time for the U.S. government to invest in people, not weapons.
Some are objecting to these expenditures. Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, and, separately, the Cato Institute, a conservative public policy research organization, are both calling for modest cuts. Some are calling for much deeper cuts, including Republicans like George P. Schultz and Henry A. Kissinger, who argue that a world free of nuclear weapons is the only way to reduce the nuclear danger, particularly the risk of nuclear accident or terrorist use.
We have made some progress since Reykjavik. In 1986 the combined arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union contained about 66,000 nuclear weapons; today there are 20,000, most of them held by the United States and Russia. China has fewer than 300 nuclear weapons. North Korea has six to 12.
Time is not on our side. Globalization creates many new avenues for proliferation. Given global climate change, the need for clean energy has led to a race in the Middle East to acquire nuclear energy. Many countries have announced their interest in or contracts to build nuclear power plants: Tunisia, Libya, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and others.
Extending nuclear power to these places is a recipe for creating more countries like Pakistan—unstable states with poor control over their nuclear infrastructure. In such countires there is also potential for diversion of nuclear material and expertise for military use or to terrorist actors or private proliferation networks. This happened in Pakistan when A. Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program, sold nuclear designs, information and dual-use technology to North Korea, Libya, Iran and others. Today he is a free man in Pakistan. The Arab Spring and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, have only highlighted the risks.
It is time to change our minds and our budget and put spending for the poor ahead of spending for nuclear weapons. As Mikhail Gorbachev noted recently, “Our efforts 25 years ago can be vindicated only when the nuclear bomb ends up beside the slave trader’s manacles and the Great War’s mustard gas in the museum of bygone savagery.”