The Russian Duma has finally ratified the New START, which was signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and US President Barack Obama last April, clearing the way for the treaty to enter into force. This treaty will mean a notable reduction in the nuclear arsenals of the two nations from the ridiculously high figures they reached during the Cold War years.
But while this is certainly a positive step—and more reductions will of course be welcome—their celebrations must be tempered by the realization that the latest move is actually just a rationalization of the nuclear arsenals of two countries whose threat perceptions have been transformed since the Cold War ended. Neither side now feels like it has to maintain the kind of numbers that Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) required in the past, meaning the nuclear arms control being implemented through START is making a virtue out of necessity.
The fact is that this treaty doesn’t in any way reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in the national security strategies of either nation. Both have, in fact, expressed the need to maintain their levels of nuclear warheads as they see necessary for national security reasons.
To this extent, then, the New START isn’t really something that can motivate other nations towards either non-proliferation or disarmament. Only doctrinal changes, such as those that reduce the role of nuclear weapons to nuclear deterrence only, or that restrict the use of these weapons to counter-strikes, can undercut the salience and hence the attraction of nuclear weapons as tools of political coercion.
The United States and Russia should look beyond mere reductions of nuclear warheads to meet the larger objectives of international security.