All of us disarmament advocates should be happy about the just-agreed reductions in the arsenals of the world's two biggest nuclear powers. But it's not reason enough to break out the champagne.
The U.S.-Russia agreement is certainly a big deal. Within seven years, both sides will slash their stockpiles of strategic warheads to roughly 1,500, an almost 50 percent reduction. The number of launchers would be cut by half. Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association (a person I truly respect) terms it "the first truly post-Cold-War nuclear arms reduction treaty."
But there are still a few glitches. A large one is a recurring nightmare from the 1980s: Star Wars, a.k.a. the missile defense program.
Senators Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl (two people I have no respect for) have threatened to block ratification in the Senate if the agreement contains any binding language at all on missile defense, as the preamble reportedly has some wording dealing with the subject. Since sixty-seven votes are needed in the Senate (just like for any other treaty), this could be a roadblock.
The Russians, on the other hand, are not too happy, even with President Obama's downscaled version of the Reagan/Bush missile defense fantasy. And Obama took the unhelpful stance of refusing to offer any concrete assurances, annoying them and almost derailing the negotiations, as had happened in the past.
"Russia had wanted to cut the nuclear bomb arsenals further under Putin, which would have enabled us to call all the parties to the table to negotiate for their abolition, but no agreement was reached-with the U.S. insisting on having its so-called missile defense systems and plans to dominate space," says Alice Slater of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
The Obama Administration's recent discussion with Romania and Bulgaria about the possibility of these two countries hosting elements of the system has further unnerved the Russians.
"If the U.S. unilaterally deploys considerable amounts of missile defense, then Russia has the right to withdraw from the agreement because the spirit of the preamble has been violated," threatens Vladimir Dvorkin, a retired general and arms control honcho.
Obama will need considerable skills at navigating these shoals.
And then there are other issues.
The United States and Russia still have 1,000 nuclear weapons each on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired at a moment's notice. An accident or a miscalculation on either side could result in an unimaginable cataclysm. I have seen no indication that the new agreement addresses this problem.
And then there's the larger question for those of us committed to a nuclear-free world: Does this treaty move us along that path? Richard Burt of Global Zero (as in zero nuclear weapons) thinks so. The United States and Russia "took a major step toward achieving their goal of global zero," he says.
I wish I could be that optimistic. Matthew Rojansky of the Partnership for a Secure America calculates that there'll still be more than 10,000 U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons left after the agreement takes effect. In spite of the symbolism of the treaty being signed next month in Prague, where Obama made his pledge of ridding the world of nuclear arms, I will believe in a nuclear-free world when I see it.
Still, the agreement is a major step forward. If not the time for a toast, it is at least an occasion to let out a cheer.