There's been a lot of needless hoopla over Obama's "open mic" comment at the Nuclear Security Summit, including an almost certainly ghost-written piece by Mitt Romney here at FP. Obama was overheard telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he "would have more flexibility" to negotiate a deal on missile defense after the election, which is both correct and hardly a state secret. The flap illustrates the main point I was trying to make a few days ago, when I wrote about how the absurdly long U.S. election cycle was a major impediment to a more effective foreign policy. (It may also be an impediment to Romney's chances, because the longer the campaign goes on, the more opportunities he has for foot-in-mouth moments that expose his ignorance about foreign policy, including his silly comment about Russia being our major geopolitical rival).
In any case, the incident got me thinking about how much the arms control agenda has changed since the heyday of the Cold War. Back then, there was a serious constituency in the United States pushing nuclear arms control, which saw it as key to reducing the risk of nuclear war, managing the U.S.-Soviet relationship, and dampening the danger of international conflict more generally. Arms control was intended to save some money, preserve each side's second-strike deterrent capabilities, and help stabilize the political relationship between Moscow and Washington. It was thus a key ingredient in the basic agenda of détente, which sought to keep U.S.-Soviet competition within bounds. (One can argue about how effective it was, but it is worth noting that nuclear war didn't occur, and the U.S. and its allies triumphed over the Soviet Union without fighting a war with them.)
Accordingly, the main items on the arms control agenda involved direct negotiations with our Soviet adversaries (the SALT and START treaties, the INF treaty on intermediate nuclear forces in Europe, etc.). These efforts involved tough and protracted negotiations between more-or-less equals (even though the U.S. and its allies were a lot stronger than the Soviet Union and its various clients), and there was no possibility of either side issuing ultimatums or imposing a one-sided deal on the other. The other main arms control item was the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and this arrangement resulted from tacit collusion between the two superpowers to preserve their own nuclear superiority. After all, the basic NPT deal allowed nuclear powers keep their own arsenals (in exchange for pledges to share nuclear technology and make some sort of long-term effort disarmament), while putting in place a regime that made it much harder for other states to join the nuclear club.
But what about now? Since the end of the Cold War, the "arms control" agenda has become decidedly one-sided. Yes, there's been a not-very-significant "New Start" treaty with Russia, which didn't alter the basic strategic relationship at all and which hardly anybody (including Governor Romney) has paid much attention to. The real action in arms control has been a series of U.S.-led efforts to get states to give up their existing arsenals or abandon existing nuclear programs. In the 1990s, we put tremendous pressure on Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to give up the arsenals they inherited from the former Soviet Union, and we eventually succeeded. Then the United States nearly launched a preventive war against North Korea in 1994, and did various deals (e.g., the "Agreed Framework") to try to head off their development of nuclear weapons. We invaded Iraq in 2003 to stop Saddam's "Weapons of Mass Destruction" programs (which turned out to be fictitious -- our bad), and have been ratcheting up economic sanctions and waging a covert war against Iran to try to keep Tehran from getting too close to the nuclear weapons threshold. And we keep saying "all options are on the table," which is a threat to use force.
In short, instead of "arms control" being the product of mutual negotiation, as it was in the Cold War, it now consists of the United States making demands and ramping up pressure to get weak states to comply. Instead of being primarily a diplomatic process aimed at eliciting mutually beneficial cooperation (which might also help ameliorate mutual suspicions with current adversaries), arms control has become a coercive process designed to produce capitulation. This approach may have worked in a few cases (e.g., Libya, although even there the Bush administration made certain concessions to secure a final deal), but its overall track record is paltry. After all, North Korea eventually went ahead and tested a nuclear device, and escalating pressure on Iran has yet to convince its leaders to abandon their enrichment program. And as I've noted before, using military force would not eliminate Iran's ability to develop weapons if it wishes, and could easily convince them that they had not choice but to go ahead and weaponize.
Because material power is still the central currency in world politics, this tendency doesn't surprise me all that much. When the United States has to deal with near-equals, it understands that bargaining is necessary and that a successful outcome requires patience and compromise. But today, we think we can impose our will on almost anybody, so any sort of compromise is regarded as some sort of craven appeasement. But even a country as powerful as the United States cannot simply dictate to others -- as we should have learned by now from our experiences with Iraq, Afghanistan, and a few others -- and a disdain for genuine diplomacy (as opposed to merely issuing ultimatums and imposing sanctions) is getting in the way of potential deals that could reduce the risk of proliferation, dampen the danger of war, and enable U.S. leaders to turn their attention to other priorities. Being the world's #1 power confers many advantages, but it can also be a potent source of blind and counterproductive arrogance.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.