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Can U.S., Russia Reduce Their Nuclear Arsenals?

March 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ahead of the nuclear summit Monday in Seoul, President Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and discussed prospects for further nuclear reductions for both nations. Judy Woodruff discusses nuclear issues with Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione and nuclear proliferation expert Stephen Rademaker.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And for more on all this, we get two views. Joseph Cirincione is the president of the Ploughshares Fund. It’s a foundation that promotes a nuclear-free world. He’s worked on Capitol Hill and has written extensively on nuclear issues. Stephen Rademaker has served in both Bush administrations, focusing on arms control and proliferation issues.

Gentlemen, we thank you both for being here.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER, former Bush administration official: You’re welcome.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, president, Ploughshares Fund: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Stephen Rademaker, to you first.

Is the president right when he says the U.S. and Russia both have more nuclear weapons than they need and that both countries can afford to cut what they have without diminishing their security in any way?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, at the outset of his administration, President Obama gave a speech in Prague in the Czech Republic in which he said his vision is a world without nuclear weapons at all.

So, I guess, by that standard, of course we have too many nuclear weapons. I think the bigger question is whether Russia believes we have too many nuclear weapons. The Russians have never bought into the notion that the ultimate objective is a nuclear-free world. And so while President Obama may feel like the United States could have fewer weapons, if the Russians don’t share that objective, I think it would be very dangerous to go down the road of unilateral reductions, with the Russians staying where they are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying it doesn’t matter whether there are too many; if the Russians don’t go down, then the U.S. shouldn’t go down — be willing to go down?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: I would be very reluctant to go down that road. And I think President Obama should be well.

And it wasn’t clear that he was saying he was in favor of unilateral reductions. He was saying that he would like to go lower. But, again, I think the critical question is, where does Russia stand on this? And I there’s little evidence that Russia wants deep reductions along the lines that President Obama apparently would favor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joe Cirincione, where do you see this?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, it’s hard to see what military mission we now have that requires us to use even one nuclear weapon — we haven’t since World War II — let us alone 10 nuclear weapons, which would be a catastrophe unprecedented in human history. And then 100 nuclear weapons, it is almost beyond comprehension that we would ever use that many nuclear weapons.

Right now, we have 1,800 nuclear weapons on missiles and bombers ready to use. We have a total of 5,000 in our active stockpile. The Russians have similar numbers. Clearly, we have a long way to go before we get down a stockpile that even begins to question whether we have enough to defend ourselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about Mr. Rademaker’s point, though, it’s not clear at all that the Russians would like to do what the president is talking about?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, Steve served in the Bush administration, which was very successful at negotiating deep reductions with the Russians. Thousands of weapons were cut under the Bush administration.

President Obama has started down that road. And I think the Russians are willing, too. In fact, here’s the really good news. Right now the Russians are retiring many more weapons that are aging and have to be removed from their arsenal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re talking about strategic weapons.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Strategic long-range weapons, the weapons that can reach our shores on long-range missiles and bombers. So, by the end of this decade, the Russians will be down to about 1,000 nuclear weapons. So we can follow them down safely. We can go down and save both of our countries’ money by not replacing those systems as they age and retire from the force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that make sense?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, I think Russia has a very different nuclear architecture than the United States does. They’re in the — constantly in the business of disassembling and reassembling nuclear weapons.

But under the latest arms control treaty, both countries will have 1,500 nuclear weapons when that agreement is enforced. I think the bigger problem is that the commitments of the United States are global, our alliance commitments to our allies in Europe, our allies in Asia. And we don’t have the ground forces to back up the treaty obligations that we have. And that’s why for 50 years we have had a nuclear deterrent.

And those obligations haven’t changed. And to the contrary, new nuclear these are emerging in places like North Korea. And if diplomacy doesn’t suddenly succeed, we’re going to face a nuclear-armed Iran as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying even if the U.S. and Russia were to reach an agreement, the question is what happens with U.S. allies?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Yes. Well, that’s why you have to take all the other nations into account.

But when you look at nuclear weapons, the U.S. and Russia are where the action is. Together, they account for 95 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world. There are about 19,500 in the world. We and Russia have most of them. So, the other nations are expecting us to go down to levels where they can then join the conversation.

So China has about 200, India about 200, Israel about that number. So, once you get down the U.S. and Russian arsenals to about 1,000 deployed, that’s when you can get these other countries in and get them negotiating as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A couple of other things. How significant that the president was also talking about reducing, Stephen Rademaker, short tactical weapons, nuclear warheads in reserve? Is that significant?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: That’s a critically important issue, because actually Russia today has more tactical nuclear weapons than they have strategic nuclear weapons.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Yes. Yes.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: And they have about 10 times as many of those weapons as the United States has. And these weapons have been completely ignored in previous arms control agreements because they’re difficult to verify and difficult to count.

So I think President Obama is listening to what he heard from the United States Senate in the debate on the last arms control treaty. And he’s recognized that if there are to be deeper reductions, he has to address the tactical nuclear weapons as well.

Now, the problem there is that — I used to engage in these discussions with the Russians. They have no interest — or at least in my — during the time that I was talking to them, no interest in addressing their 10-1 advantage in these weapons. They’re very happy with that advantage. They see no reason to change it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to get — do you want to comment on that, because I want to ask you. . .

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: No, so that’s why you have got to make the deal. We’re interested in cutting their tactical nuclear weapons. They’re interested in cutting our big reserve of strategic weapons. It’s a made-for negotiations. It’s let’s make a deal here. We can cut them and so satisfy each side’s security needs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other things, this president being caught on camera today without realizing, saying to Medvedev that, I can be more flexible, in effect, after this election.

What does that amount to?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, in part, he’s trying to get Putin to soften up. He’s trying to have Putin show some flexibility. Putin has taken a very hard-line attitude on this.

But, in part, this is the problem you have when you let politics drive your missile defense policy. The president is now spending $10 billion a year on a missile defense system. He doesn’t want to appear weak on it, especially during an election period. As a result, the president is building a missile defense system that doesn’t work against an Iranian threat that doesn’t yet exist with money we don’t really have.

It’s time for him to let the actual military requirements drive missile defense, and not the politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you make of the flexibility comment?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER:  I thought it was an astonishing statement for the president of the United States to convey to the incoming Russian president, that he will have more flexibility on an important issue for Russia after the election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why astonishing?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, what he’s saying is, I have got additional offers to make to you. I can’t make them before my election because the American people might repudiate me in the election if I — this would create a political problem for me to be honest about what I intend to propose. So, trust me, in a year, I will be back with a better deal.

Astonishing.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, no matter what the president does, his opponents are going to attack him for being weak or naive or dangerous. So the president might as well do what he really thinks is necessary, cut the nuclear weapons arsenal, rein in an unworkable missile defense system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final short question to both of you.

This North Korea announcement that they are going to have this long-range missile test in days to come, does that say that the agreement the U.S. cut with North Korea last month, food aid and you will let nuclear inspectors in and so forth, was that a mistake, that agreement?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, it’s questionable whether there actually was an agreement or there were two sides interpreting what was said in slightly difference ways.

The effort to arrive at such an agreement isn’t a mistake, and clearly North Korea is trying to have it both ways. They’re trying to get the food aid by saying they have an agreement and then being a little too clever and saying, this isn’t a missile launch. It’s a satellite launch.

Look, it’s a missile launch. And the U.S. can’t tolerate this. There’s no agreement if North Korea goes ahead with this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In just a few words.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: This is the typical North Korean pattern. They make promises in exchange for benefits that we extend to them. They pocket the benefits and then they try to renegotiate by taking back their promises.

They have just begun the renegotiation earlier in this case. I think this is all about getting more food aid, getting a better deal from the United States than the one that the Obama administration promised them a month ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, we thank you both.

Stephen Rademaker and Joseph Cirincione, thank you.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Thank you, Judy.