WASHINGTON -- President Obama can use his executive authority to take action on missile defense and nuclear arms reductions without having to secure the go-ahead from a hostile Republican Party.
Obama has made no secret of his hopes for cuts to the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles that go beyond the New START accord that entered into force two years ago. His administration also wishes to quell Moscow’s concerns about U.S. ballistic missile defenses.
Significant cuts could be made to the nation’s atomic arsenal without congressional approval. Obama could also direct the government to implement transparency actions aimed at addressing Russian worries about the impact to strategic stability of U.S. antimissile systems in Europe.
Such moves would be politically drastic as they deal with core national security issues. They would not come without repercussions.
Senator John Hoeven (R-N.D.) at a breakfast in Washington in early February said “clearly on my side of the aisle there would be universal opposition” to any U.S.-Russian defense agreements that were not submitted to the Senate.
There is an executive precedent for carrying out nuclear arms reductions with Russia absent a formal ratified treaty. In 1991, then- President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to significant cutbacks in deployment of nonstrategic weapons in what became known as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives.
Obama in his State of the Union address this month briefly touched on his desire to "engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals."
Early discussions have already taken place between top Obama administration officials and senior Kremlin counterparts. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to raise the matter during a meeting scheduled for Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Obama has reportedly backed a secret Pentagon policy paper that determines the United States can maintain a viable deterrent with a long-range nuclear arsenal of between 1,000 and 1,100 warheads, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The nation now has about 1,700 such weapons in the field.
The United States and Russia under New START are already obligated to lower their respective deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads by 2018. Washington hopes additional cuts could be made in collaboration with its former Cold War foe.
This goal could be accomplished through an “informal understanding” between the White House and the Kremlin if Obama officials determine they do not have the two-thirds Senate votes needed to pass a legal amendment to New START, according to the CPI report.
“Treaties are an important, but not always necessary, method for reducing nuclear arsenals,” noted a late-November report by the International Security Advisory Board, which was established to give advice to the State Department on arms control and other matters.
The administration has made clear its preference is for a legally binding, verifiable treaty negotiated with the Russians, noted Kingston Reif, nuclear nonproliferation director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.
Still, “there are strong national security reasons to consider potential parallel reciprocal steps that are outside of a formal treaty,” he said in an interview.
Reif noted that Russia is already below the warhead threshold required by New START but it could move back up to that level with its new heavy ICBM.
It might be in the United States’ interests to follow the Russians down below the cuts mandated by New START in order to sway Moscow away from further production of the missile that could carry as many as 10 warheads, Reif said.
“People have been talking about the benefits of arms control and nuclear weapons reductions outside the auspices of a formal treaty for a long time. This isn’t something that has just been pulled out of thin air,” Reif said.
A significant downside to informal agreements is that they cannot be legally verified. Under the Bush-Gorbachev agreements, the United States has been unable to ascertain that Moscow has carried out all of its promised reductions of tactical nuclear arms.
Additionally, there is almost certainly to be a political cost if Obama attempts to implement an informal arms reductions agreement with Russia that sidesteps the Senate’s constitutional mandate of treaty approval.
The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee might try to pass legislation that would require the president to secure congressional approval for any new nuclear arms control agreements, according to Reif. “The Republicans on the House Armed Services have attempted to prevent the president and the U.S. military from implementing the New START treaty.”
“The fact that they are trying to stop the new treaty … suggests that they may try to pass legislation that prevents the president from reducing the size of an arsenal outside of a formal treaty,” he continued.
Russia, meanwhile, has said Washington must address its missile defense concerns ahead of new bilateral arms cuts.
Moscow is distrustful of U.S. plans to in the next decade field increasingly capable ballistic missile interceptors around Europe. The Kremlin does not accept the Obama administration’s assertions that the systems are aimed at defeating a possible Iranian ballistic missile strike and will not have the ability to counter Russia’s sophisticated ICBM force.
In January, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused the Obama administration of not showing the promised “flexibility” it said it would have if it won re-election "There are no easy solutions in terms of antimissile defense,” he told CNN.
In order to resolve the dispute, Obama should direct the U.S. government to make annual declarations to Moscow on the current number of antimissile systems it possesses and how much it anticipates those numbers to rise over the year, Brookings Institution senior fellow Steven Pifer stated in a policy recommendation paper in October.
“The annual declaration would indicate the present number of each key element of U.S. missile defenses and the maximum number projected for each year over the next ten years,” Pifer wrote.
Another option for addressing Russian fears would be for the Obama administration to “clearly and publicly” state that development of a next-generation ICBM interceptor will be contingent on progress by Iran toward a continent-spanning ballistic missile, James Acton, senior policy associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a recent interview.
The interceptor in question, the SM-3 Block 2B, would be deployed no sooner than the end of the decade under the last part of the Obama administration’s “phased adaptive approach” for European missile defense. Moscow has demanded a written legal guarantee that its nuclear missiles would not be targeted by the interceptor.
Washington “has been ambiguous” about its plans for the interceptor, saying at times the weapon would not be fielded if Iran does not appear close to an ICBM capability, Acton said. However, “there have been times where they have said ‘we’re going to do Phase 4 whatever happens,’” he added.
“I think clarity would be very useful here,” said Acton, a physicist by training.
Iran at present is assessed by congressional researchers to not be anywhere close to having an ICBM military capability before 2015.
Neither the annual declaration on U.S. missile defense assets nor the statement on the Block 2B interceptor would require Senate approval and so could allow the White House to skirt Republican objections, according to Acton.