Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

A magnificent day

April 8, 2010

Today, Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev meet in Prague to sign an agreement that will eliminate more than 1,000 large nuclear bombs from the Earth. Ho-hum! Commentators are carping that this development is not splashy or dramatic enough. Quite the contrary: it is magnificent news for our world.

When historians look back on the present generation, they will say that there were three trends of historic import – and none involve the effluvial trivia that dominate most contemporary discourse.

One trend of historic import is the spread of democracy, a sanguine development which seemed impossible as recently as the 1980s. The second is the rapid decline of global poverty – an improvement barely remarked upon in the West, because it isn’t happening there, and violates the chic-pessimism script preferred by tastemakers. China has moved 220 million people, nearly the population of the United States, out of poverty in a single generation. This production-and-output achievement is every bit the equal of America’s production-and-output achievement to win World War II. Poverty is declining in many though of course not all other developing nations.

The third great development of the present generation is steady decline in the world’s inventory of Armageddon weapons. According to estimates from the Federation of American Scientists, at the peak, in the mid-1980s, the United States and old Soviet Union possessed 80,000 nuclear warheads – sufficient to end human life, if not life on Earth.

Following a quarter-century succession of agreements backed by Democratic and Republican presidents alike in the United States, and reformers and zealots alike in Russia, the total is down to about 15,500 nuclear warheads. That is still too high. But when else exactly in history has fourth-fifths of any category of military power voluntarily been given up, to say nothing of within a single generation?

Today’s agreement binds the United States and Russia to a further reduction of about 1,600 thermonuclear devices, and the ones to be eliminated are the worst kind – “strategic” warheads up to 125 times as powerful as the atomic explosive dropped on Hiroshima. In the 1980s, each side possessed about 10,000 strategic bombs of extreme destructive force. Under the terms of today’s agreement, each side will be limited to 1,550, representing an 85 percent reduction in the worst category of nuclear threat.

The Prague agreement further sets the stage for a renewed push for nonproliferation — unfortunately, not likely to succeed in the short term — and for U.S.-Russian negotiations toward a sharp reduction in short-range, Hiroshima-class “tactical” nuclear weapons. There may be no realistic means to get Iran or North Korea to abandon nuclear-weapon efforts. But it is quite realistic to hope the United States and Russia will agree to more cuts in tactical nuclear arms: Moscow has already signaled its desire for this. Tactical nuclear munitions don’t engage public or political attention, because a single one cannot incinerate a city. But because tactical nuclear bombs are so numerous, reducing them is important, too.

Once today’s agreement takes force, the United States and Russia combined will have about 3,000 strategic nuclear devices and about 11,000 tactical bombs – far less than the two sides possessed at the height of the Cold War. Future historians may express amazement that so little heed has been paid to such reduction: though nuclear arms are by a huge margin the worst threat to human life.

Nor is much attention paid to related treaties by which Washington and Moscow have agreed to keep most nuclear warheads in storage – most of today’s bombs could not be fired by accident because it would take days or weeks to re-initialize them; agreed drastically to reduce the number of ICBMs, the missiles that carry the worst kinds of nuclear warheads; agreed to halt development of new ICBMs; and agreed it make it harder, though not impossible, to target ICBMs against cities.

Grousing that today’s Prague agreement somehow isn’t impressive enough, because it represents only one phase in reducing the nuclear-war threat, betrays a lack of any sense of history. Today’s agreement is magnificent: showing the leaders of the United States and Russian Federation share a positive vision of walking the world back from the brink of midnight.

As president, Jimmy Carter supposed that nuclear warheads could be reduced until each side possessed only 100: he felt that would be ample to insure against attack. Last year, Obama said he sought a “world without nuclear weapons.” Neither of these idealistic goals may come to pass. It’s not even clear a world without nuclear weapons would be desirable. For 65 years, nuclear deterrence has prevented great-powers war: the maintenance of small nuclear inventories sustains that deterrence.

But it is undeniable that shrinking the doomsday arsenal is a global good, and today’s agreement is another step. For two decades, nuclear-warhead facilities in the United States and Russia have run in reverse, disassembling bombs rather than making them. Today’s agreement gives the bomb-disassembly facilities a few years’ more business. If only every day brought such welcome news.

Comments
16 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

good read, well done and thank you

Posted by onchor | Report as abusive
 

The ‘agreement’ between President Obama and Putin’s Puppet Medvedev contains cold-war word play that includes items like this – in order to reduce the number of warheads listed each side is allowed to combine weapons and count them as one – so a B52 carrying 8 nuclear tipped cruise missiles and 4 nuclear bombs would be counted as one weapon. It is an old trick. It allows both sides to keep what they have and create replacements (and new weapons). The numbers are misleading and false. This administration is not supposed to be dealing in deception and falsehood.

Posted by cranston | Report as abusive
 

“Deception and falsehoods” is all this administration knows. ObaMao is a consummate liar and fraud. He hired liars, cheaters and frauds. So, what did you expect this idiot to do when it came to ANY arms talks? Actually, ANY issue period. Real solutions? The little boy doesn’t understand a simple concept….. “honesty”.

Posted by Izzzy | Report as abusive
 

Great news, covered with the wise natural enthusiasm that the event merits. Good for you.

To nay-say it for any reason would be unpatriotic.

Posted by smartwords | Report as abusive
 

Good progress and an historic event whether the screaching right winger’s don’t get it or not. Ironic the ones calling our President a little boy are the ones that come off sounding like whiney little children themselves. It’s clear nothing this man can do will stop the sheep from bitching. Here’s a thought: get out of the way, contribute or shut-up. Your days of mucking up this country are on the way out.

Posted by Smirky | Report as abusive
 

Poor lil Smirky. A bit peevish are we? Now listen Smurfy, the days of mucking this country up have been in overdrive since your Empty Suit of a POTUS took office. But people are waking up, even if you Smurfs are not.

Posted by TeaPartyVince | Report as abusive
 

To smirky and Mr. Esterbrook:

“That is still too high. But when else exactly in history has fourth-fifths of any category of military power voluntarily been given up, to say nothing of within a single generation?”

Try the Washington Armament Treaty of 1922!

The “winners” in WW1 decided to give up arms…as did Japan. Mr. Esterbrook, if you read any subsequent history, you might find a chapter describing WW2
and Hitler.

I doubt you will bother though, it will cloud your fantasy

Mr. Obama seems not to read the same histories as you.

Peace will be best maintained by free, democratic republics who are strong enough and confident enough to
help guarantee some stability

This teaty is totally unnecessary unless you are a starry-eyed lefty who needs to be liked by EVERYONE.

This is like the kid on the playground defending himself against bullies. “I’m gonna drop this stick now, so if I promise not to pick it up again, I am sure you will want to be my friend.” Personally I would keep the stick.
Even if I decide not to fight that day

Posted by rleored | Report as abusive
 

I’d never heard of Gregg Easterbrook until last week, but I like his stuff so far.

I think anyone posting about Obama’s record of truth (or lack of it) should check this page -> http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/ promises/

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive
 

“There may be no realistic means to get Iran or North Korea to abandon nuclear-weapon efforts.”

Ya, because they want to nuke…US!

Posted by Mr.Snowy | Report as abusive
 

i am quite happy with the deal betwen russia and usa, but i stopped reading after i came to positive trends of democracy and global poverty reduction … what are you talking about???

Posted by johny2 | Report as abusive
 

Agreed: limiting the number of nuclear weapons possessed by advanced nations is important. It is also important that, with the strengthening of the non-proliferation regime, rogue states like Iran and North Korea are kept away from such weapons. The West already failed in Korea (which has detonated two warheads now) and Iran seems to be on a similar path. Not to mention India (a non-declarared nuclear power) is being allowed by the US to posess nuclear weapons. There needs to be some consistency (and the consistency cannot be “If you are a friend to the US you can have nukes…”

However, most importantly, a world without nuclear weapons would be a terrible world. The only thing that stopped the Soviet Army (which was the largest at the time) from spilling over into West Germany was credible nuclear deterrents. The day those deterrents go away is a very dangerous day…

For more commentary about Obama’s foreign policy see http://www.philosoguy.com/111/india-and- china-and-pakistan/

Posted by pcasinelli | Report as abusive
 

The critics and the carpers and especially the republican peanut gallery are almost always wrong. This is because their emotions of anger, victimhood, etc. obscure their perception. Never trust what a Palin, Beck, or Limbaugh tells you. They sound sincere…they act sincere, yet they are misleading and deceiving the public. Folks with soft heads who have not yet developed critical thinking ability latch onto their every thought. Today is indeed a historical day…regardless of what the carpers say. Today. President Obama and Mr. Medeznev moved the world closer to being safe.

Posted by vintel7 | Report as abusive
 

Reducing our Nuclear weapons from having the capability of destruying the earth 7 times over down to only being able to destroy the planet once or twice has got some of the paranoid all up in arms (no pun intended)

Posted by Smirky | Report as abusive
 

Destroying I mean…damn no spell check

Posted by Smirky | Report as abusive
 

How absolutely refreshing to hear a thought out argument on any issue relating to current global politics. Well done and keep up the good work.

Posted by ashimmer | Report as abusive
 

wow nice info bro.

 

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