This year’s National Security Symposium coincides with the 25th Anniversary of the John G. Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs. As we celebrate the legacy of Senator Tower this year, we chose to discuss nuclear arms control and nonproliferation policy, which the Senator deemed vital for U.S. national and broader global security.
Senator Tower was a key player in the field of U.S. national security and defence policy through the 1970s and 1980s. After John Tower retired from the U.S. Senate in 1984, President Ronald Reagan appointed Tower to lead international negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union on the reduction of long-range, strategic nuclear weapons. Tower headed the U.S. delegation during strategic arms reduction talks in Geneva between early 1985 and the late Spring of 1986.
In the summer of 1985, under Tower’s leadership, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed in principle to reduce their strategic delivery systems for nuclear weapons (missiles and aircraft) by half, and also agreed to drastically reduce their strategic nuclear warheads to 6,000 each.
The progress achieved during these negotiations made it possible to sign the landmark Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991. The START treaty was, at that point, probably the most complex arms control agreement ever negotiated. The treaty’s implementation resulted in the removal of about 80% of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence.
Senator Tower firmly believed that talking to international adversaries, such as the Soviets, and seeking pragmatic compromise with U.S. foes, was not a sign of weakness but rather was a hard-headed means of increasing national security. As Tower declared in a 1985 New York Times interview: “A negotiated agreement with our opponents to significantly reduce the number of destabilizing weapons, and reduce the risk of nuclear war, is a national priority of the highest order. It will make the world a more secure and safer place.”
Why revisit this topic now? These are difficult times for nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. New technologies are currently being developed that are making nuclear weapons more dangerous and more lethal, be it through the development of new delivery systems –for example, new hypersonic, superfast missiles— or through heavy investments by both Russia and the United States in smaller, so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons that are more likely to be used in battle.
In addition, there are new states that have joined the nuclear weapons club such as North Korea, India, and Pakistan. These states have not signed up to the international legal framework that was established during the cold war for managing and limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There are also several states today that are potential nuclear weapons proliferators— states that have indicated an interest in acquiring their own nuclear weapons; most obviously Iran, but also Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and various countries in East Asia.
Lastly, in another worrisome development, the current U.S. administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty earlier this year. Senior administration officials have also indicated that the president may not extend the 2010 new START agreement: this is a follow-up to the original START treaty, that further significantly limits the number of long-range nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia and ensures regular on-site inspections by both sides that reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war.
Undoubtedly, existing arms control agreements are imperfect. They often do not include key players, such as China—a rapidly growing nuclear power, even though with a current arsenal that remains much smaller than those of the United States and Russia. In addition, compliance with these agreements is ultimately voluntary. Nevertheless, compliance is often in the interest of all sides involved. Research suggests that by limiting the number of these deadly weapons and establishing inspections that increase transparency, these agreements significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic nuclear war. It is therefore fair to conclude that existing arms control agreements do make the world a more secure place.
The author of this post, Stefano Recchia, is the John G. Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security and Associate Professor at SMU. He also directs the program in national security at SMU’s Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs. Previously, he was a tenured faculty member at the University of Cambridge, UK. Professor Recchia holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University (with distinction) and a master’s in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has been awarded numerous grants and fellowships, including from the Brookings Institution, Fulbright Commission, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Rotary Foundation, European Commission, and Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.