Reducing Our Only Existential Threat

Attempting to make good on his pledge to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and other nations’ defense postures, and eventually eliminate them, President Barack Obama seems on the verge of reaching a new strategic arms reduction agreement with Russia. If such an accord is reached, Obama is to be commended. But more needs to be done.

After the Cold War ended, the public largely forgot about the only “existential threat”—a threat to the nation’s very existence—that the United States has ever faced in its history. Not even a victory by the Nazis in Europe and/or the Imperial Japanese in Asia during World War II would have threatened an America protected from the world’s major flashpoints by two vast oceanic moats. And although the young and weak United States, under President James Madison, foolishly declared war on the British naval superpower and had its capital city burned, America probably would have survived even the loss of this pointless war. After all, Washington wasn’t as important to a then-decentralized country as it is now, and the British did not have enough forces to occupy and control all of the vast American territory.

Nowadays, American governments do worry about unfriendly, poor countries—such as Iran and North Korea—getting a few nuclear weapons. Even if these nations had effective missile systems that could deliver a small number of warheads to the faraway United States and somehow were not deterred from launching such an attack by the overwhelmingly superior U.S. nuclear arsenal, the results would be horrendous to the U.S. targets struck but would not be a threat to the existence of America. Similarly, if those countries gave or sold a nuclear device to a terror group, or if the terrorists were able to steal or build one, the use of it in any of these scenarios would not result in existential destruction.

Despite its recession from the headlines, the Soviet Union and now Russia has been and still is the only country to have enough nuclear warheads to pose such a cataclysmic threat to the U.S. homeland. To his credit, despite only a minimal chance of making political hay from working on a problem that American and world public opinion think has been solved, Obama is on the verge of signing a replacement for the just-expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 that would cut U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear arsenals by about a quarter from 2,200 to 1,600 warheads apiece. The new treaty would also limit each side’s strategic bombers and sea- and land-based missiles to 800, a reduction from the current ceiling of 1,600.

And if he can nail down this agreement, Obama wants to try to cut warhead totals to 1,000 on each side. Of course, if Russia and the United States could successfully negotiate cuts down to this level, they then would need to bring in the lesser nuclear powers of Britain, France, and China to go farther.

Smaller strategic arsenals would be easier to protect and thus provide fewer opportunities for terrorist groups to steal warheads—making a low-probability event even lower. A reduced U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads would also obviate the need to build a new generation of nuclear warheads. Instead, current warhead designs could be refurbished and reused. Finally, the United States could scrap at least one leg of the bomber and air- and sea-based missile “triad,” which has long been nuclear overkill after the Cold War ended. The U.S. could start by eliminating the ever vulnerable land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and warheads in ground silos. Finally, all such cuts of warheads and delivery systems would cut the cost of storage, personnel, operations, and maintenance—money that could be used to reduce the $1 trillion deficits that the Bush and Obama administrations have given us.

ivan-eland.jpgIn short, if a new START agreement is reached, Obama should be given credit for toiling in the shadows on an issue that is no longer glamorous but still has the potential to catastrophically affect America and the world.

Ivan Eland

This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.

LA Progressive

Published by the LA Progressive on December 26, 2009
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About Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He also has served as Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), and has testified on the military and financial aspects of NATO expansion before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on CIA oversight before the House Government Reform Committee, and on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dr. Eland is the author of The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy, as well as The Efficacy of Economic Sanctions as a Foreign Policy Tool. He is a contributor to numerous volumes and the author of 45 in-depth studies on national security issues.

His articles have appeared in American Prospect, Arms Control Today, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Emory Law Journal, The Independent Review, Issues in Science and Technology (National Academy of Sciences), Mediterranean Quarterly, Middle East and International Review, Middle East Policy, Nexus, Chronicle of Higher Education, American Conservative, International Journal of World Peace, and Northwestern Journal of International Affairs. Dr. Eland's popular writings have appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, Miami Herald, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Newsday, Sacramento Bee, Orange County Register, Washington Times, Providence Journal, The Hill, and Defense News. He has appeared on ABC's “World News Tonight,” NPR's “Talk of the Nation,” PBS, Fox News Channel, CNBC, Bloomberg TV, CNN, CNN “Crossfire,” CNN-fn, C-SPAN, MSNBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), Canadian TV (CTV), Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, BBC, and other local, national, and international TV and radio programs.


  1. The current existential threat is the same one it has been for the past few decades. It not terrorists, it’s pollution and mega corporations out of control. The trace elements that are highly toxic, and mimic our interfere with out own biochemical balances as well as the rest of the biosphere that we interact with.
    So it is a war against those that have been put in positions of power and control, who emphatically lack the psychological balances to properly govern those roles or themselves in those roles.
    Decisions driven by greed for ever greater bonuses for corporate executives regardless of the cost to the rest of humanity, and the millions not thousands, but millions of lives lost.

  2. Dear Ivan:

    You are being an overly thought out putz. Why do you think no one has invaded the USA??? Besides the ‘moats’ you speak of?? The only way the muslim radical robots caused problems was with our own fuel loaded bombs (the planes on 9/11). It is because most of us normal people have guns to protect ourselves, unlike any country in the world. Extrapolate that to ideology vs. ideology on a global position. Reagan did it right and his way of doing it was correct. Pakistan and Russia’s peni() jacking with Iran is the issue. Get past the START adn focus on the BS.


  3. gave or sold a nuclear device to a terror group, or if the terrorists were able to steal or build one, the use of it in any of these scenarios would not result in existential destruction.
    The threat is not from a country, it’s from people bringing in suitcase sized nuclear weapons.
    If a country was to fire off some missiles towards us, yes, we would retaliate and blow that country off the face of the earth. Of course retaliation won’t save any Americans, but retaliation will deter a country from attacking us.
    What about a group of men with the intent of doing us harm, how do we retaliate?
    As we have seen with the attempted blowing up of the airline on Christmas day, even when the father of the “bomber” alerted American government to the threat, the Obama administration still couldn’t do anything to stop it.
    It’s a tough spot for Bush/Obama and all future presidents. How to stop terrorists. The Clinton appeasement approach didn’t work, the Bush we’ll kick your ass approach didn’t work. How do you stop people that feel that dying for their cause is the purpose of their life.

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